THE PALACE OF ILLUSIONS is a retelling of the Mahabharat, one of the longest epic poems in history, and takes place between 5000 and 6000 BCE. The novel is populated by kings, queens and deities of ancient Indian mythology, spanning decades and revolving around Panchaali, a princess who is forced to marry five men. The story is told from her point of view, and through her we learn of her birth, her childhood and her eventual marriages to the Pandava brothers.
As a child, Panchaali is a willful girl who finds ways to learn things that only boys are taught in school. Rather than sitting at home and being a wife and mother, she yearns for the life that males are granted because of their gender. Panchaali wants to be taught the ways of men and how they acquire power, and she learns all she can from her brother (with whom she is very close) and his teacher.
A sage tells Panchaali early in life that she will end up marrying five men and that she will be the reason for the start of a great war, which will destroy the "Third Age of Man." Panchaali doesn’t believe this at first, but as the prophecies come true one by one, she admits that the wise sage was right and realizes that her life will not be an easy one.
Women are strong characters in this version of the tale and take center stage. Along with the charismatic Panchaali, readers are introduced to the formidable Kunti, Panchaali's mother-in-law, who is doing what she can to make her daughter-in-law’s life miserable. The two clash often throughout most of their lives, but there will come a time when they finally will see eye to eye.
A continuing thread in the story is Panchaali's friendship with Krishna, the one person in her life who she constantly relies on for companionship and advice. Even during her marriage to the five brothers, Krishna is still there for her --- if not physically, then in spirit. She doesn't realize how much she loves him until it’s too late.
Panchaali’s secret passion, however, is for Karna, the man she rejected initially on her wedding day. Her love for him consumes her, for now she cannot have him. When she learns of a secret that involves him and her mother-in-law, it is all she can do to keep from revealing it to her husbands. Still, no matter how angry she is with Karna or how much he hates her for rejecting him, her passion for him smolders until the day she dies.
THE PALACE OF ILLUSIONS spans a lifetime --- from Panchaali and her brother’s childhood, to her marriage to the five Pandava brothers, to the great war and their downfall. It is as grand and tragic as the epic poems by Homer. The story is complex, as political relationships grow and develop, and friends and enemies are created, leading to battles and wars that will eventually destroy them all. While I personally didn't connect with the political themes of the novel, I was captivated by the tragic storyline and the fate into which Panchaali was born. This admirable attempt to recreate the epic Mahabharat from the viewpoint of a strong woman is Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s best work yet.
Reviewed by Marie Hashima Lofton(Ratmammy@lofton.org) on January 14, 2011
The Palace of Illusions