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The Glass Palace
by Amitov Ghosh
Random House
476 pages, $25.95

The Glass Palace

Amitav Ghosh's fourth novel opens with the sweeping power characteristic of the best historical romances. It begins in nineteenth-century Burma, where a resourceful Indian street orphan falls in love with a beautiful nursemaid to the Burmese Queen. They eventually marry and start a family whose fate The Glass Palace carefully chronicles through world wars and imperial decay. Ghosh's narrative cools as he depicts the family's interwoven stories, his fervent opening chapters giving way to a more objective sensibility. The historical forces that served as the love story's lush background begin to overcome the characters. There is no denying Ghosh's command of culture and history: whether describing court life in the nineteenth-century Burmese Glass Palace, where servants could approach royalty only on all fours, or limning a political speech by the contemporary Burmese opposition leader, whose laughter confounds her jailers, Ghosh proves a writer of supreme skill and intelligence. But this very precision tends to sap the emotional intensity promised in the novel's opening pages.

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