Review: The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

I’ll be honest this book wasn’t on my TBR and reading it was a rather spontaneous decision. It is a retelling of the Mahabharata which is a major Indian epic that is at its core, the tale of a devastating war between two clans- the Kauravas and Pandavas. It’s a very detailed, intricate tale so I’d suggest looking up the characters and understanding the basic storyline before reading this book. I never explored the genre of mythological texts much before and that’s why I only had a loose idea of what the Mahabharata was about. That was until I came across a more philosophical explanation of it and realized that this story has more than meets the eye.

For those unfamiliar with the epic: the Pandavas are five brothers and cousins to the Kauravas. A multitude of events and instances of betrayal causes a civil war between the two. The duration of this war is filled with revelations, acts of love and sacrifice and interludes of mythical stories. Moreover, it is a wonderful description of Indian culture and traditions. Keep in mind, the original book is huge and this novel talks of more of the main events and offers a new perspective on this compelling tale. It is narrated from the point of view of Panchaali, wife of the five Pandava brothers and a very important part of the epic. Although there have been various tv shows, movies and interpretations of the Mahabharata, they are for the most part male-centric. But, Panchaali plays a very crucial role in this war and she has such an interesting, unique history too. This is my mom’s favourite book and she has been urging me to read it, but I refused thinking it wasn’t my cup of tea(sorry mom).

However, when I found out the distinctive perspective this book offers and that Panchaali was no damsel in distress but an outspoken, fierce and opinionated queen,(literally) I wanted to read this book immediately. If you can’t tell already, I loved it and my mom had an ‘I told you so’ moment. Anyway, it’s surprising that Panchaali’s viewpoints haven’t been explored much before because she was the immediate cause of the war and in general, a female character not only known for her prophesized birth, but her inquisitive nature and drive to push boundaries and enter places reserved for men in ancient India. However, the thing that sets her apart and makes her known across lands is that she is queen of the Pandavas.

Throughout the book, Panchaali expresses her desire to make a name for herself and to go down in history as someone who was revolutionary or different. As her name Panchaali goes, she was one of a kind living in a time where only kings have several wives all at once. Becoming this legend of sorts is only the beginning of a lifetime of instances where she indirectly influences major events of the Mahabharata. Panchaali has some dialogue or history with almost all male characters in the book, she advises some and seeks advice from some. These moments, even if they don’t play a part in driving the story forward are still at the back of her head and we see how they affect her when those characters are on a battlefield fighting for their lives.

The author also highlights some other background female characters equally interesting as Panchaali. These women made a difference in their way and it’s great the way they all come together at the end. If there’s an emotion I noticed was very well put forth in this novel, it was regret. Panchaali often forgot the consequences of her actions in pursuit of her ambitions and these consequences would return to haunt her. Chitra Banerjee brought something new to the table in her portrayal of Panchaali’s deepest desire playing out unexpectedly. She wanted to make her mark on history and she did, but by starting a war. Towards the end, she has an almost apologetic tone as she never wanted for so many lives to be lost, women to be widowed and survivors left forlorn and regretful.

Final thoughts~ This book had a bittersweet, beautiful ending. Though mythological it is very versatile and has some great lessons to teach no matter where you’re from. The title particularly intrigued me because I couldn’t figure why the Palace of Illusions which is the name given to the extraordinary palace Panchaali inhabited, was particularly important. I think it’s meant to be symbolic because this palace was the first place she ever belonged, was ever happy and when the war and devastation began in her life; the palace, the crux of her joy was something she never saw again. I could go on about this book, but I’d rather you read it and understand where I’m coming from. I want to explore more of this genre because mythological stories are truly timeless!

“A situation in itself, is neither happy nor unhappy. It’s only your response to it that causes your sorrow.”

~Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Palace of Illusions.

Review: The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Adichie

After reading Americanah, an unputdownable book full of wit and vigour- I was itching to read another one of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s works and this anthology of twelve short stories did not disappoint. Coming up with twelve different stories, ensuring their plots don’t clash and their characters vary in their personalities all the while, sticking to the common theme of ‘the thing around your neck’ is hard to do but she has executed that effectively. In this book she’s given us some poignant and touching stories which stay with you long after you read their last lines. You can’t help but take a break after each one to ponder upon its lessons and meaning and really read between the lines.

The Thing Around Your Neck features the tales of various Nigerian women, all from different walks of life and varying in age. The stories are set in a range of time periods from the mid-1900s to the 2000s and the protagonists are from every strata of society and some are placed in the U.S.A as well. We see one thing common to all stories and that is the essence and culture of Nigeria which is alive in all of the protagonists. Despite being in different times and situations, the women are subjected to the same repression and orthodoxy, but remain empowered nonetheless. From exploring corruption in Nigerian authorities to the terrors of immigration to the oppression caused by gender roles, making us accomplice to ethnic-wars and riots and of course, her compelling feminist epiphanies, Adichie really takes us full circle.

Although this book included themes common to Adichie’s work, something I found unique to this book and what I believe she excels at writing is grief. Devoting certain stories to the aftermath of losing a loved one and the toll it takes on human beings, she’s given us an insight into a rather complex feeling well and told the tale with understanding and sensitivity. Such stories in the book resonate with you and are truly heartrending. One thing I recommend if you’re curious to know more about any story is to read its analysis and symbolism, I found a great site for this and I’ve linked it at the end.

I don’t want to disclose any plots or characters because I’d be revealing too much, but just know that this book has some intricate and gripping storylines. For those of you who’ve read the book, I wanted to reveal some of my favourite stories from the collection. Don’t get me wrong all of them moved me but some simply resonated with me more and were real page-turners. In particular, A Private Experience, Jumping Monkey Hill, Tomorrow Is Too Far and The Headstrong Historian.

The Thing Around Your Neck is one of the stories in the anthology, but it raises the question, why is it the title of the book? What is the ‘thing around your neck’? In my opinion, it’s the characters’ discontent, their past, culture or even grief and loneliness in some cases which is almost like a prison that doesn’t seem to leave them. The ‘thing around your neck’ is always lingering and casting its shadow.

Final thoughts~ Overall, this collection is a vivid and powerful one. It focuses on everyday aspects of life and relationship that are painful yet considered normal because everyone goes through them at some point. If anything, this book is a good reference for anyone looking to read short stories because the ones in The Thing Around Your Neck are great examples of what a sequence and build-up of a short story should be like.

“He said “see” as if it meant something more than what one did with one’s eyes”

~Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Thing Around Your Neck

REFERENCE:

The Thing Around Your Neck Guide

Review: Honour by Elif Shafak

Honour is an inter-generational saga set in 1970s London which highlights the narrow-minded and dangerous opinion of some cultures when it comes to a woman’s ‘honour’. Written by an author who excels in narrating domestic settings and struggles, Honour is yet another work of fiction where Elif Shafak does not fail to leave us speechless, retrospective and entranced with her words. This is a book which shows us the importance of communication and how we as human beings lack the ability to share our troubles and thoughts with one another. How falling short of this ability often costs us relationships and how understanding and communication could possibly save a life. It highlights the impact someone’s actions have on those around them, along with other aspects of the immigrant life all the while, subtly reflecting on the clash of cultures and traditions.

A theme I find common to Shafak’s books is the realization that everyone in your life has their stories, their struggles and are very often absorbed by them. In Honour, this theme is brought to life by the focus of the book- the Topraks, a Turkish family disconnected from each other most of the time and broken by their individual experiences. Pembe and Adem Toprak leave for London from Istanbul to start a new life for their family and try to keep their Turkish and Islamic traditions alive in their three children- knowing they will be influenced by Western ways of life. The children find themselves torn between tradition and modernity, further troubled by the stifling situation at home.

By telling us the stories of Pembe and Adem, who had tough childhoods, absentee parents and dysfunctional families the author shows us that however hard you try, you cannot escape or erase the past. For it will find a way to catch up with you and seep into your present. This is another trademark theme of Shafak’s books- expressed here through Pembe and Adem’s past affecting their lives in London as well as those of their children who suffer its consequences.

The basis of the book is of course the concept of ‘honour’ and its varying perceptions in Turkish and Western culture. In the case of the Topraks, honour is more of a code consisting of the chastity, fidelity and modesty of a woman and a man’s ability to lead and assert his power over his family and ‘act like a man’. Thus we see how breaking of this oppressive code leads to shame and disgrace of various members specifically women of the Toprak’s past and unbelievably, their death. Honour killings, which Western culture would think of as a brutal crime is somewhat normalized in the minds of certain characters in the book.

In Honour, Elif Shafak brings light to a topic that isn’t talked about enough- honour killings. She lays emphasis on what I would assume is the reader’s perspective, that is the dark and wrong side of honour killings but provides insight into the mindset which fuels it as well. This is done through the characters for instance, two of the Toprak children- Iskender and Esma. Esma is the outspoken and confident feminist daughter (one of my personal favourites) who questions her mother’s old-fashioned traditions. Esma is juxtaposed with her brother Iskender, a product of the expectations of men. He finds himself shaped by bullying and conservative friends and family. So, you disagree with his opinions but can’t help empathize with him as well for what he’s gone through.

Final thoughts~ Overall, Elif Shafak’s Honour is a powerful read. It shows us that honour is but a social construct which can ruin lives. The same honour which determines someone’s reputation in Turkish society does not hold the same importance in Western culture. We see how ‘shame’ is considered almost a punishable crime in the eyes of Pembe, but is used lightly by the Londoners around her. Even if the ending is a hopeful one, the devastating events described throughout the book still leave your heart heavy. This book takes you places whether it be a nameless Kurdish village or a building of squatters in London. Elif Shafak’s books take something esoteric, such as an honour killing and make it something approachable. She is such an underrated author.

“Everything in the universe, no matter how little or insignificant, was meant to be an answer to something else.”

~Elif Shafak, Honour.

OTHER REVIEWS OF THE BOOK:

Honour by Elif Shafak

Honour- Elif Shafak

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