Solid, old-fashioned historical fiction that careens through the century, embracing a cast of characters whose lives unfold so gracefully that before you know it you’ve also witnessed the tragic tale of modern Burma, a country destroyed by colonialism and its aftermath.
The Indian-born Ghosh (The Calcutta Chromosome, 1997, etc.) is too subtle a writer to simply rage against Empire, which, as the British constantly remind everyone here, brings modernity to the subcontinent. But this lyrical and focused narrative finds its origins in a simpler time: an 11-year-old Indian boy in Mandalay first glimpses a young beauty, a servant in the palace of the Burmese king. A resilient and determined orphan, Rajkumar apprentices himself to a wise and friendly Asian teak dealer, who helps him develop the fortune that will reunite Rajkumar with his beloved Dolly, who follows the Royal Family into exile in India after the 1885 British invasion. History plays out against this grand passion, rather than the other way around: Rajkumar grows wealthy from his investments in Malaysian rubber during WWI; Dolly’s friend Uma becomes a leader in the radical Indian Independence Union; the Burmese riot against the Indians, complicating the various intermarriages; and, most importantly, WWII pits everyone against the invading Japanese, and, later, family against family, when the mutinous Indians fight the British loyalists. The novel is no history lesson, though, since Ghosh integrates his research with immense skill, making real events have consequences for his invented characters. And there is always the pulse of human life: the births and deaths, the loves and betrayals, the rises and falls—all spread over generations of Rajkumar’s family, and even connecting to the present state of affairs in Myanmar.
The contradictions of colonialism permeate a story that, like the best historical fiction, envelops you in its world. Ghosh seamlessly blends ideas about the power of the photographic image with unforgettable descriptions of nature—in a thoroughly enjoyable, intelligent epic that’s bound to win him a wide and grateful readership.