10 July 2006

Beneath a Marble Sky

A historical fiction based on the legend of the Taj Mahal, the marble mausoleum built by a widowed emperor in India in honor of his wife, Beneath a Marble Sky creates a kingdom of poetry lost to a warmongering extremist. But the tale centers on the emperor’s daughter, Jahanara, as she narrates her story of love and exile to her granddaughters. Be warned: once you pick up this book, you will be captivated. My sleepy late night eyes were riveted to the page. I highly recommend this book.
The luxurious use of metaphors at first seems forced and formal, but it lends itself to the Indian world. The reader adapts to this sing-song language and consequently is drawn in to the culture. I was lost in the land of Hindustan.
I found myself caught up in Princess Jahanara’s dilemmas as she weighed the place of love, duty, and devotion. The author, John Shors, was able to portray a woman’s heart longing for security and affirmation from her parents and her burgeoning family. She is a woman full of ambition for herself and her kingdom, a woman of charitable sensitivity, and a woman longing for passionate love. Jahanara was given to a wealthy man in her father's kingdom in marriage. She struggles with feelings of betrayal from her parents for betrothing her to a churlish lout while still maintaining her duty to her father, the emperor. She finds sanctuary in her parents' household as often as possible until her mother's death requires her to find indefinite harbor there as she oversees the creation of the Taj Mahal. There she finds the passionate love she of which she had long dreamed but with it discovers a new set of quandaries. I alternately fought Jahanara’s decisions and cried with her tragedies. While I would not have made the choices Jahanara made, I felt tied to her and sympathetic with her. In the same way we try to stop the character from entering a dark room while the suspenseful music is playing, I tried to stop Jahanara from turns and paths.
At the end of the day, I have very few questions, but still, weeks after finishing the book, they turn in my mind. I question how Jahanara told the story to her granddaughters: the descriptions of her love-making sessions with both her husband and her lover heightened the disparity between the brute and the tender, but I cannot help but wonder if Jahanara would truly describe these in such detail to her young granddaughters. I question some of her choices of her commitment to her father versus her commitment as a mother. Is my questioning a result of my Western heritage or universal? Was her choice made from insecurity or honor? Finally, I question the relationship between the Muslims and the Hindus. This book presents a softer picture of Islam (excepting the extremist leader) than we see leading the headlines and wars of the radicals. Is the picture that John Shors paints legitimate? How do Jahanara's behaviors match up with her belief about Allah? How would Hindus and Muslims compliment each other when Muslims are sacrificing the Hindu sacred cow on their altars, literally? But these minor questions did not take away from my enjoyment of the book or compassion with the character. I had been emotionally held hostage and for days after felt despondent at both the loss of the characters from my life and the beauty of the story itself.

1 comment:

Heather said...

I had emailed John Shors, the author, to let him know that I had posted this review to his book. Among other comments, he replied:
"You make some interesting points on your blog. The Muslim vs. Hindu point is esp interesting. I think that, in all honesty, the religion of Islam is kind of unfairly smeared these days. When you think that more than one billion people on the planet are Muslims, it's pretty clear that only a very, very small fraction of Muslims are the kind of people who are so eager to destroy and seed hate. I wrote BAMS pre-9/11, so I wrote it without thinking of any of the east vs. west clash that is so dominate today."
I replied:
"I know little about the Muslims. I do know that many that either I or friends have come into contact with have, in effect, disassociated themselves from the extremists, so I do believe there are many "denominations," so to speak."