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The Palace of Illusions

Review

The Palace of Illusions

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
by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

  • Publication Date: February 12, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385515995
  • ISBN-13: 9780385515993