Friday, April 4, 2008

Review of Palace of Illusions

I really enjoyed this book. I've read Chitra Divakaruni's work before (I loved Mistress of Spices) and she is a skilled writer; her language is lovely and evokes the landscapes and people vividly as you read.

This is a retelling of the Mahabarata from the women's point of view; specifically, Draupadi or Panchaali as she was later called. I have never read the Mahabarata, but I suspect I did myself a favor by exposing myself to it this way, since in its original form it's an epic poem (yawn. Sorry, I was an English major and I know I should be more respectful, but no way could I keep my eyes open long enough to read a 1.8 million-word poem).

Panchaali ends up marrying five brothers at the same time, very unusually (it was the men that typically had multiple spouses, not women). I enjoyed the magic realism style of the book, in which proclamations immediately came true; when Arjun (the O.G. hubby) brings Panchaali home to his mother, he jokes, "Look what I've brought home," and without looking, she says, "Whatever it is, you must share it with your brothers." And BAM! Panchaali has five husbands. Regardless of what's proper in society, it's been proclaimed, and so it must be true. That causes some interesting plot turns and twists; cursing people is a much more serious business when you know what you proclaim will actually come true.

Panchaali is an empathetic character; you feel for her rebellion against her lot as a princess in India, and for her secret desire, never fulfilled, for a man who is not her husband(s), and for her frustration at being passed from brother to brother; it seems as though she has gained a measure of power unheard of for a woman of her time, gaining five husbands, but really she feels like just as much a pawn, with little say over her fate.

All of the characters were many-layered and complex, with various motives driving their actions. I really liked that about this book; characters were not one-dimensional, and even though you are obviously led to take Panchaali's side (and her husbands'), you understand the motives of the other side too. In fact, in the battle at the end, you see family members fighting on opposite sides of the battle, bound by their beliefs or oaths to fight their loved ones, though they of course don't want to.

Krishna was one of my favorite characters; mischievous and mysterious, an incarnation of Vishnu (although Panchaali is dubious when people whisper about that). I enjoyed the interactions of the gods with the mortals; in fact, all of Panchaali's husbands' dads were gods. This gives them superhuman powers.

The title refers to their amazing palace, built magically by a friend of Krishna's. The architect warns them not to invite anyone to see it, but of course they ignore that warning and have all the neighboring kings over, which causes a lot of jealousy and ultimately the destruction of the palace.

The one thing that bugged me was the heavy-handed foreshadowing. At the end of nearly every chapter, Panchaali says something like, "If only I had known x, y, or z, I wouldn't have done a, b, or c, and perhaps the great tragedy could have been averted..." After a few chapters I was like "Enough! Okay, something big and bad happens, I get it!!"

But it was easy to forgive, since I breezed through the book. I've attached two images taken from the Wikipedia entry about the Mahabarata: The top image is a depiction of the battle which is the climax of the book; the bottom is also from that battle, where the husbands and Krishna (the blue guy) pay homage to their father-figure (who was fighting on the opposite side and was killed by Arjun, Panchaali's original husband). He is laying on a bed of arrows.

Next I'll be reading a book club book and another one a friend lent me, so I'm not sure what the next library one will be...I guess it depends on what comes in from my wishlist!


@lankr1ta said...

Krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu, not Shiva, a minor quibble in a beautiful write -up

Bellybee said...

Oh, thanks! I fixed that.