Review: The Palace of Illusions – Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The Palace of Illusions
Book cover: A beautifully, green-bejewlled arch and golden door.

A reimagining of the world-famous Indian epic, the Mahabharat—told from the point of view of an amazing woman.

Relevant to today’s war-torn world, The Palace of Illusions takes us back to a time that is half history, half myth, and wholly magical. Narrated by Panchaali, the wife of the legendary Pandavas brothers in the Mahabharat, the novel gives us a new interpretation of this ancient tale.

The novel traces the princess Panchaali’s life, beginning with her birth in fire and following her spirited balancing act as a woman with five husbands who have been cheated out of their father’s kingdom. Panchaali is swept into their quest to reclaim their birthright, remaining at their side through years of exile and a terrible civil war involving all the important kings of India. Meanwhile, we never lose sight of her strategic duels with her mother-in-law, her complicated friendship with the enigmatic Krishna, or her secret attraction to the mysterious man who is her husbands’ most dangerous enemy. Panchaali is a fiery female redefining for us a world of warriors, gods, and the ever-manipulating hands of fate.

I’m a firm believer of “best for last”, which is why I saved The Palace of Illusions for the end of my Asian Lit Bingo experience. I had very high hopes for this book and was very excited about reading a retelling of the Mahabharat from the viewpoint of one of the women. I myself didn’t know anything about the story before this book, so I was hoping to learn more about the mythology, as well as getting the opportunity to read a beautifully-written book.

It’s #ownvoices.

The writing is beautiful. There is just something so magical and lyrical about it, and the descriptions brought every single person and event to life. I seriously felt like I was sitting there with the characters and living through the events.

It’s crucial to remember while reading this book that this is a retelling of an Indian epic. So while, you might complain that events don’t make sense or that some of the characters are weird, this is how the story goes. It’s a story that is very focussed on destiny, and it certainly infuriated me how destiny kept keeping people apart etc. but the ending made up for it. I am in love with the ending!

There are several plot twists (which won’t be new to you if you know the Mhabarat), but they certainly were new to me. It was fascinating to see how Panchaali felt about them, since even though they didn’t always affect her directly, she always was somehow affected by them.

Panchaali is the main character of this story, and according to my literature her portrayal is usually not that detailled in the epic and other retellings, even though her actions are pivotal for the events that occur. And you will be so annoyed with her at times, because she is always doing things that make everything else go wrong. Like seriously, a sage even told her how to make the latter events less worse in three situations and she didn’t listen. This is because she’s also spontaneous and as we have all done at some point in our lives, she forgets this advice in critical moments. As a reader, it’s so annoying to see her forget this advice, however we have to remember that she received the advice years ago and we read about it a few hours ago. I could understand her as a person. She’s not perfect, she has so many flaws, but she felt so real! I’d like to ask the sage though what the point of giving the advice was, if she anyway wouldn’t listen.

There is one character in this book that could be interpreted as being transgender, however I understood that he chose to be a man so that he could fulfill his aim in life, and not because he was a man. (I’m very unsure with the pronouns here.) I spent a lot of time researching Shikhandi and even the interpretations and the stories about him are all different.

The society is very traditional-based and Panchaali is thought how to be a good wife. She questions a lot of the traditions but there is not much that she can do about it. One passage that I really liked where this is discussed a bit is where she says that being a virgin is more of a benefit for the husbands than for her.

Some examples of the beautiful writing:

“Caught between him and Yudhisthir, a woman couldn’t even enjoy being miserable.”

“I wanted to believe that sometimes the gods give us gifts and ask for nothing back.”

“There was an unexpected freedom in finding out that one wasn’t as important as one had always assumed!”

“Every time I spoke it, it embedded itself deeper into my brother’s flesh, for a strong gains power with retelling.”

The Palace of Illusions is a beautiful story, that brings an interesting perspective to an old story. The narration captures you, and I wasn’t able to stop reading. A wonderfully-written book that I’d recommend to everyone interested in Indian mythology and retellings. This is quite a long book, so make sure that you have some time for it!

I’m pretty sure that I’ll read another one of the author’s books, and if she ever writes another retelling that will certainly be an autobuy.

5 stars

Have you read The Palace of Illusions? Have you read any other books that are retellings of the Mahabharat that you think I should read?

7 thoughts on “Review: The Palace of Illusions – Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

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