When a beloved empress dies, her heartbroken husband builds her a tomb called the Taj Mahal, while her children jostle for power and partners.
Returning to Mughal history, her topic in two previous novels (In the Convent of Little Flowers, 2008, etc.), Sundaresan brings sober devotion to the dynastic tale, which opens with Empress Mumtaz Mahal’s death after the birth of her 14th child. The emperor’s grief is so great that he is inclined to give up his hard-won throne, but his increasingly influential eldest daughter Jahanara persuades him to continue. Preparations to erect a monument to the empress at Agra are interleaved with royal power struggles; cliffhanging chapter endings attempt to inject drama and suspense. But the story remains flat, buried under masses of research. Readers with a taste for lyrically delivered detail (the jewelry! the palaces! the bed linen! the polo ponies!) will find Sundaresan’s word paintings as colorful as Indian miniatures, albeit just as static. Jahanara remains loyal to her father to the end, despite her love for the courtier whose child she bears. A late power struggle among her four brothers seals the future of the empire. The luminous tomb will outlive them all.
A mine of fabulous detail on the daily lives of the Mughal emperors, but fiction requires a more powerful engine than this stolid chronology packed with names, background and sidebars.