The Glass Palace

This novel by Amitav Ghosh ( charts the lives of Rajkumar Raha and his family, starting in Mandalay, where he finds himself stranded when the sampan he is working on breaks down. Rajkumar stays on as a restaurant worker, and witnesses the British depose and deport the last king of Burma, Thebaw, and his family, to India in 1885. During the mayhem here he falls in love with a girl who works for Queen Supayalat. After making a success of himself in the timber trade thanks to the lover of his former employer, Chinese merchant Saya John, he tracks the girl down in Ratnagiri, where the family lives in exile. Rajkumar and Dolly move back to Burma, where their business thrives and they have two children.


The tale bounces between the main Burmese, Indian and Chinese characters and through wars, into the modern era. It is enriched by incredibly colourful historical detail. Riots, a royal family in exile, the brutality of colonialism, the teak and rubber trade are all described lovingly. Here are the British transporting teak: ‘Often the logs came not singly but in groups, dozens of tons of hardwood caroming down the stream together… At times a log would snag… Then at last something would give; a log, nine feet in girth, would snap like a matchstick. With a great detonation the dam would capsize and a tidal wave of wood and water would wash down the slopes of the mountain.’


We learn about Yenangyaung, ‘one of the few places in the world where petroleum seeped naturally to the surface of the earth’.  Also about anthrax being common in the forests of central Burma and epidemics hard to prevent. ‘A trail or pathway, tranquil in appearance and judged to be safe after lying many years unused, could reveal itself suddenly to be a causeway to death. In its most virulent forms anthrax could kill an elephant in a matter of hours.’


Ghosh is a master of beautiful prose pitched at just the right level, and this is a narrative which will transport you away to a distant place and a different time. Make space for it.


Combine by reading George Orwell’s Burmese Days (


and Andrew Marshall’s The Trouser People (


Check if this extraordinary novel is in stock at your local library by consulting the online catalogue at



560 pages in Harper Collins

First published 2000

ISBN  978-0002261029



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Amitav Ghosh

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