Book 23: The Twentieth Wife




"These last two months had been slow and uncomfortable. They were all waiting for something. Waiting for Akbar's death. Waiting to see who would win the throne. Waiting- yet not wanting the Emperor to die, for either possibility seemed frightening."

Dates read: February 22-25, 2016

Rating: 4/10

Sometimes I wonder how much the liking of a book is tied to the time when you first read it. I wonder if I would still love some of the novels I first read in high school as much as I do if I'd been older and had a more developed critical eye than I did then. I started reading the Twilight series in the wake of a bad breakup, and I remain fond of the series (especially the breakup arc in New Moon) despite knowing full well that they're not high-quality literature. It would stand to reason, I think, that some books I've read right after something wonderful seem particularly lesser-than in comparison, and sometimes books that followed a dull and plodding one seem even better than they might actually be.

So I wondered if The Twentieth Wife following the double punch of two brilliant novels in a row might have been contributing to my disappointment with it. Was I being entirely fair to the novel on its own merits? If I'd read it, say, after one of the Masks of God books would I have liked it more? Ultimately, I feel like the answer is that no, I'm not being harsh because it doesn't measure up to the two amazing books I just read, it's honestly not very good.

To start on a positive note, it did introduce me to an era of world history I know precious little about: the Mughal Empire of India. I'd only really known two things about it previously: the rulers of the Mughal Empire were Muslim, and that the Taj Mahal was built as a memorial for a Mughal empress, Mumtaz Mahal. That's pretty much it. So the details that this novel provided about the empire and its courtly life were new, interesting information, and I particularly enjoyed the way each chapter opened with a quote from a historical source about the characters and events to be presented.

What didn't quite work, though, was most of the rest of it. The writing quality isn't particularly high...it was difficult to find a highlight quote because there were few bright spots. That's not to say it's especially poorly-written either, because it isn't...it's just mediocre. The novel tells the story of Mehrunissa, the daughter of a court official under the rule of Emperor Akbar. Although she is married to a soldier as a young woman, she and Akbar's heir apparent, Prince Salim, fall in love and eventually marry after her first husband's death. He becomes the the Emperor Jahangir, and she becomes his twentieth but most important wife, Nur Jahan, one of the most powerful women in the history of the Muslim world. She must be quite the interesting woman, eh?

Not really, as author Indu Sundaresan paints her. According to Sundaresan, when an eight year-old Mehrunissa catches a glimpse of Salim's first wedding at court, she decides right then and there that she will one day marry Salim. For no reason made particularly apparent, she attracts the interest of Akbar's most powerful wife, Ruqayya, as a companion, and spends her time at the palace thinking about how to attract Salim's attention so she can one day become an empress herself. Indeed, she spends her time at home thinking about the exact same thing. Even after she is married to another man, she keeps dreaming of a future with Salim. Mehrunissa is given no other real characterization besides "beautiful, educated woman completely obsessed with Salim". There's no depth or interest to her character. She has no close friends. Her first husband is presented as a one-dimensional brute who does not appreciate her or treat her very well. When the narrative shifts, as it does at times, to present Salim's story, he's presented as a weak-minded but ambitious man, easily manipulated, who is just as obsessed with Mehrunissa at first sight as she is with him. Neither of these people is given much of an inner life, nor are they at all compelling.

Which is disappointing, because from the Wikipedia-ing I was inspired to do, she led a very interesting life and a book about her should be fascinating. But a complete lack of character development and clunky writing have doomed this one to the donate pile.

Tell me, blog friends...what's one area of world history that you wish you would have learned more about in school?

Note: Review cross-posted at Cannonball Read

2 comments

  1. I would like to have learned anything more than what I did: the history of Canada and, to some extent, of Britain.

    This time and place sound fascinating and I know nothing about it. Too bad The Twentieth Wife is so disappointing. I shall have to keep my eyes open for another book that covers the same era.

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    1. I'll be keeping my eyes open too, because when I opened Wikipedia while I was reading it to learn more about the characters, it was so interesting! I understand why we mostly learn our own country's national history in school...world history is so vast that it would be impossible to cram in. We don't even really get a good look at our own (at least here in the US, where it seems like the entire twentieth century gets crammed into about a month, with two weeks of that on WWII)

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