Friday, April 23, 2010

The Twentieth Wife

The Twentieth Wife by Indu SundaresanOh I found a good book! Don't you love it when you come across a book that you just devour and then stare blankly at the final page, wishing there were more?

I came back from India desperate for more of the country, with random lines of Kipling floating through my brain, O Best Beloved. (And here I should say that if you haven't yet read the Jungle Books or Just So Stories you cannot leave this life without doing so. To say the language is gorgeous is an understatement of elephantine proportions).

But we're not talking Kipling today folks. When I asked her for books on India my mother gave me a novel by Indu Sundaresan called The Twentieth Wife and I absolutely loved it. Historical fiction has always been my favorite genre so to find a historical novel about India was just what I was craving.

India's history goes back five thousand years with various groups coming in and adding to the culture but the Mughals were the rulers that essentially brought Islam to India. They ruled across the north and in what is now Pakistan then down into the Deccan plateau which is where we traveled. Descended from Genghis Khan himself, there were six major emperors--Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb--with the Mughal rule ending with British control of the subcontinent. For quite a time the Mughal empire was the biggest and richest in the entire world.

You're probably familiar already with one of these rulers, Shah Jahan, who was most famous for the love he had for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth with their 14th child. In tribute to her--the story goes--he built the Taj Mahal as her mausoleum.

But enough history. The point is, The Twentieth Wife tells the true story of Mehrunnisa, a commoner who becomes the Empress of India, the famous Nur Jahan, and the power behind the peacock throne during the early 17th century. Royal intrigue, love, romance, tragedy, torture, power and lust--it's all there in abundance--and while much of Mehrunnisa's early life and personality is conjecture, the story is founded in fact as recorded in her husband Jahanagir's journals, historical accounts and the writings of visitors to the Indian court.

Golkonda FortIn a time when women were kept from power and authority, Nur Jahan was intelligent, powerful and rich and not only influenced her husband in a way no other empress had before but she had merchant ships and properties and wealth beyond most men of court and was a shrewd businesswoman.

The story is interesting and the details transporting (I got very excited when they mentioned Golkonda Fort where we spent a few hours baking in the heat last month) and it's as exciting a story as you could want with all the exotic flavors of curry, jasmine and mangoes.

One of the things I particularly liked about the book--besides the fact that it's uncommonly clean--is that each chapter is headed with a paragraph from the actual historical documents upon which the story is based. Some are from court transcriptions, some from poetry and prose, some from English historians visiting the empire but all giving the real words of those who knew the Empress and knew her story and it gives the narrative a touch of authenticity.

I'm starting the sequel that continues Nur Jahan's story--The Feast of Roses--and if it's as good as the first book I'll be reading the last book in the trilogy, The Shadow Princess, which picks up the story with Nur Jahan's grand-neice after her mother Mumtaz Mahal dies in childbirth.

Now if only I could get Sundaresan to write books as fast as I can read them. . . .

Sponsored by Beau-Coup for unique baby shower favors.


Kathryn said...

I'm also a historical fiction junkie! This looks like a good book! I remember from an earlier post that you liked The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye. Have you read her other books, Shadow of the Moon and Tradewind? They are both really good as well.

I also loved Zemindar by Valerie Fitzgerald. It takes place during the Indian Revolution in 1857 and focuses on the Seige of Lucknow. Fitzgerald's Grandmother lived through the Seige so it is very true to history. Anyway, if you're interested in any of those three, and can't find them, I have copies you could borrow.

Thanks for sharing your book reviews! I really enjoy getting fresh ideas on good books to read.

CountessLaurie said...

You are the best review writer!! Every time you review a book, it gets added to my list...

p.s. if you befriend me on, it would save me a lot of time :-)

Alison said...

If you like historic mysteries, try
The Last Kashmiri Rose (Joe Sandilands Murder Mystery) by
Barbara Cleverly. It is set in 1920 India, and it really captures a long-gone era.

Scribbit said...

Thanks for the recommendations--I looked up Fitzgerald at the library but they don't have any of her books (darn it) I'll have to see if Title Wave has any, I have some used book credit there.

For a second, Allison, I thought you'd written "Beverly Cleary" which threw me for a loop :) I didn't know she'd written any adult mysteries :)

Flea said...

This sounds interesting. Thank you! Pop over to my blog to enter a contest for a book I really enjoyed, by Francine Rivers.

Jenna Consolo said...

This sounds fantastic! Thanks for the recommendation. I love to visit different cultures and time periods through fiction, so I think this book will be right up my alley! (Did you read/enjoy A Thousand Splendid Suns?)

Heart2Heart said...


Seriously if you are a lover of books you need to stop by my blog and sign up for one of my many giveaways that are ending this weekend for some fabulous reads and yes, I even can ship them to Alaska!

I just got one in the mail today called Everything is Broken, A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma that I am reviewing which I think you'd love.

Hope you come by and sign up for all of the giveaways, you never know you might just win them all.

Stop by when you can, I miss seeing you.

Love and Hugs ~ Kat

Patricia L said...

aaah, Just So Stories. I had all but forgotten that, but now that you mentioned it, I can practically smell the book and see the was on our bookshelf and, as a child, I remember going back to it over and over and over.

Just Mom said...

I've been looking for a book to read, and this one sounds like something I'll really enjoy. I visited India (and the Taj) when I was in college and would love to at least armchair travel back there again.

Resmi... said...

Hi Michelle,

I came across your blog today and was reading through the posts when I found this one. I was extremely delighted when I found the Twentieth wife book cover on your post. Though I haven't read this one, I have read The Feast of Roses and have written a review for it on my blog -
Hope you also enjoy the books.

Btw, I came here looking out for the crafts. I loved the wreath one. Will keep visiting for more. Good day!