Book Review: The Palace of Illusions (Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni)

Review: The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Fantasy/Historical Fiction – Standalone

“Palaces have always fascinated me, even a gloom-filled structure like my father’s that was a fitting carapace for his vengeful obsession. For isn’t that what our homes are ultimately, our fantasies made corporeal, our secret selves exposed? The converse is also true: we grow to become that which we live within. That was one of the reasons why I longed to escape my father’s walls.”

The Palace of Illusions is retelling of the Mahabharata that focuses on the story of Panchaali, daughter of King Draupad: the princess born of fire, who married five husbands, and whose insatiable desire for vengeance would start a brutal, catastrophic war. I have never read the Mahabharata, which means that I cannot speak to how successful The Palace of Illusions is as a retelling or the ways it interacts with or enhances the original epic. As a further disclaimer, I bring no knowledge or insight on the Sanskrit epics, Hinduism, or Indian history in general, to my reading of the story. I can only speak about the potential experience to others for whom this might be their introduction to the Mahabharata and to this time and place in history—and I would say, it is a wonderful introduction.

Divakaruni’s prose is really lovely, with evocative imagery and graceful turns of phrase. There is a sense of inevitability that infuses the story, something I imagine is compounded for those already familiar with how the story will unfold. The inexorableness of the characters’ fates is depressing, but also strangely comforting and beautiful at times. It all helps add to the feeling that this is a retelling, a legend repeated time and time again. Reading a chapter of The Palace of Illusions feels very much like listening to a story—even for someone who didn’t grow up hearing these tales, it taps into an imaginative place of childlike wonder.

There are a few relationships that particularly wanted to highlight. I love the way Panchaali relates to her brother Dhri, and their unquestioning, unconditional love and support of each other. I also liked watching Panchaali’s relationship with her mother-in-law, Kunti, progress over the course of the book from anger and suspicion to respect. We so often see women pitted against each other, especially in cases where they rely on the same men for their power, and it is heartening to watch them evolve past the antagonistic roles they expect to play in each other’s lives. But best of all is her friendship with Krishna, an incarnation of the god Vishnu. It’s one of my favourite things to see friendship treated as equal in weight and importance to romantic love. In this case it is treated not only as equal, but superior. When it comes down to it, Panchaali derives the most happiness and strength from her time with Krishna, and she trusts and cares for him above anyone else.

About 200 pages in, the chapters get quite a bit darker, and Panchaali is a more distant and unlikable character. She becomes cruel towards those around her, as the war that we have known is coming since the beginning of the book draws closer. I found that this section, followed by the depressing and brutal realities of armed conflict, was harder to get into. I suppose that it would be dishonest to portray Panchaali waiting for the war to begin as anything other than tedious and difficult, and the war itself as anything other than brutal and senseless. So while it is still well written, for a stretch of time The Palace of Illusions became a bit of a chore to pick up. I had some other minor complaints as well: I thought that some of the dramatic high points were rushed through (one in particular), some of Panchaali’s relationships felt underdeveloped, and there were some awkward moments in the prose.

What I will remember most about this book, however, is the end: the last chapter is a beautiful and unforgettable piece of writing, and ensured that I will be carrying Panchaali and her story (as told by Divakaruni) with me for a long time.  This is one of the best books I have read this year, and I will be picking up Divakaruni’s work again, for sure.

If you like ____ you might want to pick up The Palace of Illusions:

  • Mythology
  • Non-western European fantasy settings
  • Magic-light fantasy or magical realism
  • Beautiful prose

You might want to pass on The Palace of Illusions if you dislike:

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