a book review: the palace of illusions by chitra banerjee divakaruni

here's something I don't usually do: a book review.


well, actually, if you already know the story of the mahabharata, one of india's oldest and longest epics, then there really isn't much to spoil. if you aren't familiar with the story, this might give a few things away, though maybe not too. but what I will warn is that some of the things that I will talk about don't happen in the real mahabharat, so that might spoil a few things if you're going to read it. 

the other thing I want to say before I do my little review is that there are two ways to look at the story of the mahabharat: reality or mythology. the book I am reviewing here, the palace of illusions, has "a novel" as its subtitle, which indicates that it is meant to be read as fiction. that's cool. I get that. personally, I believe the mahabharat is a true historical story. I also believe krishna is god, soooo, those things kind of go together. some people don't believe that and approach this story and the included sub-stories as fiction. I respect that. it's just like people who don't believe the bible is historical. but I think it's important for you, my dear reader, to know that I don't have that view. just, you know, to set the tone.

I'll present my review in two sections - what I liked and what I didn't like. but first, here's a little background.

in the palace of illusions divakaruni presents the story of the mahabharat from draupadi's point of view. she is one of the main heroines of the mahabharat story. it is told from her perspective from the time she is born until she leaves the earth. if you want a true synopsis of the book, you can follow the link to amazon. but this is pretty much the most important piece - that draupadi tells the story.

I believe in saying something nice before giving criticism, so here is what I liked about the book:

divakaruni is an amazing wordsmith. the entire book is so poetic - but not in an unapproachable way. and I loved (for the most part) draupadi's narrator voice and the energy she carried throughout the novel. I've only read kamala subramaniam's translation, which is a very easy read and I highly recommend, but poetic is one thing it is not. I haven't read krishna dharma's verison either, but I've read bits and pieces and felt like it tried hard to be more poetic than subramaniam's, but falls short. so I really appreciated the over-all flow and tone of divakaruni's telling.

I also liked how she didn't end the book after the war at kuruksetra. she brought it through to the end of draupadi's life, with nice details, including draupadi meditating on krishna at the time of death. I really liked that.

here's what I didn't like:

I know that this was meant to be a novel and a piece of fiction - a "half myth" as is stated in the amazon synopsis, but divakaruni takes some liberties that I found really disturbing. at one point I actually considered stopping and not finishing it. ok, so here are some things that might spoil the book, just fyi.

first, she made draupadi obsessed with karna. like secretly in love with him. this doesn't happen in the real mahabharat. draupadi was chaste to all five of her husbands in body and spirit, always. I actually did my senior thesis for my undergrad degree about how insanely chaste draupadi was. trust me, she was not secretly in love with karna. like not even close. this bothered me the most about the book. and in the end, when draupadi goes to "heaven" so ends up with karna... yea, no. that didn't happen. and it's a totally weird liberty to take. 

in the same regard, she made kunti's character really mean spirited. she made it out like kunti didn't like draupadi and that draupadi didn't like her. hello, queen kunti is way too awesome to be the jerkface mother-in-law that divakaruni made her out to be. not even possible.

that pretty much sums it up. I mean, I guess I'm glad I read it. but in the end I was bummed about the novel-esque-ness of it. I'd give it 2.5 stars if I had to. like if there was a gun to my head or something. read it if these things wouldn't bother you. but if they would, don't trouble yourself.