Beneath a Marble Sky is a splendid historical novel about the creation of the Taj Mahal and the trials and tribulations of the imperial family responsible for it. Set against the exotic background of C17thn Hindustan, the action resolves itself in an empire split by ethnic and religious divisions between Muslims and Hindus. After the death of the beloved mother who inspired the memorial and after who it was named, the action revolves around the two main brothers and aspirants to the throne and their sister, Jahanara who is the main figure. The brothers represent alternative views of rulership: one, Dara, is a scholar and thinker, who aims to unite the people by pointing out the similarities between the religions and that the empire becomes stronger as an inclusive and welcoming place; the other, Aurangzeb, is a military leader who favours the Muslims to create a single religion state. Jahanara represents the force of love, duty and family. Alas, the cruelty of Aurangzeb seems set to overthrow all that the others have tried to achieve.
This is superior historical fiction with a good sense of time and place. Without being overwhelmed by detail, we are reminded of where and when the action is taking place and there is enough of the exotic to entertain and educate. That does not mean that a few liberties are not taken with reality for the sake of the story – for example, the ease with which leading members of the imperial family are able to wander around on their own and unmolested – but these are not enough to spoil the fun. A certain degree of honesty concerning the creation of the secondary characters also helps to maintain the narrative, even if there is the occasional touch of sentiment.
Hindustan is part of a vast region of land on which millions of people have lived and loved, succeeded and failed, dreamed and died over the centuries. Yet it continues to be very little known in the rest of the world and, where there is no knowledge, there is likely to be less understanding and sympathy. Any book that helps to redress this lack is much to be welcomed. Beneath a Marble Sky is, therefore, to be recommended to all readers who enjoy investigating other places and other times, especially those who find that the people we find there are as familiar to us as members of our own families.
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