The Palace of Illusions

Written by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Review by Adelaida Lower

Set in a mythic age, “when the lives of men and gods still intersected,” this new novel from feminist writer Divakaruni retells the story of the Indian epic Mahabharat from an original point of view, that of Panchaali, the wife of the five brothers of the epic tale, an extraordinary princess born out of Fire and destined to “change the course of history.”

The Palace of Illusions starts fascinatingly. Using a meta-fiction device, the author has Panchaali and her twin brother Dhri interrupt the flow of a story—the story of their unusual birth. They add to it, they go back in time, or another character, their nurse Dhai Ma, mixes what actually happened with things that should have happened. Unfortunately, the fun is quickly spoiled. As soon as Panchaali marries the five Pandava brothers, the promise of the novel begins to fade. There are gender-changing, celestial astras (weapons), gods in disguise, epiphanies and many other marvelous events, but there is also no suspense or tension. Dreams and foretold destinies are fulfilled with disheartening alacrity. The arresting power and tragedy of the Vedic doctrine of karma that illustrates the grand ancient epic ultimately crushes this novel.