Shors, John: Beneath a Marble Sky
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McPherson & Company © 2004, 324 pages [amazon]
When his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal died during childbirth in 1630, Shah Jahan, the emperor of Hindustan, ordered that a magnificent mausoleum be erected for her. Tens of thousands of laborers and craftsmen worked under the eye of the project's master architect, Ustad Isa, for more than a decade. And when the mausoleum's last gleaming white marble slab was fitted into place the world had one of its most treasured monuments, the Taj Mahal.
When his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal died during childbirth in 1630, Shah Jahan, the emperor of Hindustan, ordered that a magnificent mausoleum be erected for her.In his marvelous debut novel Beneath a Marble Sky author John Shors has taken what is known of the historical circumstances of the mausoleum's construction and created from that bare-bones account a rich, gripping narrative. The story is told by Princess Jahanara, the wily daughter of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. At the book's outset she is an old woman, telling her granddaughters the story of her life for the first time: Hindustan is then too dangerous a place for relatives of the reigning emperor, and the girls had been too young previously to be entrusted even with the knowledge that they were of royal blood. The story Jahanara tells is a grand one. Beginning with her childhood among the chattering women of the royal harem, she tells of her mother's strength and intellect and of her parents' devotion to one another, and she introduces readers to her many siblings, in particular two of her brothers, the bookish Dara--the presumptive heir to the throne--and Aurangzeb, whose cruel streak in boyhood would mature into a lust for power and violence that would ultimately threaten not only his family but the empire itself. In the course of her narrative Jahanara tells two love stories--her own and that of her parents--but much of her story is bleak: there is her loveless marriage to the abusive Khondamir, her mother's death, her brother Aurangzeb's instigation of a civil war, her separation from her daughter. She is sustained throughout by her father, her lover, and by two very solid friendships.
Most books, however engaging they may be in the reading, ultimately aren't memorable. Over time their plots and characters slip away, and one is left not with a true memory of the book but, at best, with a general sense of one's reaction to it--that it was thrilling or slow, well-written or clumsy, that one would want to read more by the same author or not. But because Beneath a Marble Sky is not only engaging and beautifully written but also tied intimately to a cultural monument, I think that it will live in its readers' imaginations far longer than most books, its story called to mind whenever one encounters references to or pictures of the Taj Mahal. Shors does a service in breathing life into the mausoleum and the historical figures and circumstances that created it. And he's done it beautifully.
My one suggestion for improvement is that the author add a historical note to subsequent editions of the book, detailing for readers what is known about the characters whose lives he has depicted.