Published: 6 June 2006
Genre: Historical Fiction
Princess Jahanara, the courageous daughter of the emperor and his wife, recounts their mesmerizing tale, while sharing her own parallel story of forbidden love with the celebrated architect of the Taj Mahal.
Set during a time of unimaginable wealth and power, murderous sibling rivalries, and cruel despotism, this impressive novel sweeps you away to a historical Hindustan brimming with action and intrigue in an era when, alongside the brutalities of war and oppression, architecture and the art of love and passion reached a pinnacle of perfection.
Beneath A Marble Sky was a book I’d had my eye on for a while since I really wanted to know about the story behind the famous Taj Mahal, however upon reading the blurb, I discovered it was told from the point of view of Princess Jahanara and it put me off a little as I wanted to read about the beautiful woman who inspired the building and not her daughter. However, the story wouldn’t leave me alone and after downloading a sample, I found myself quickly drawn into a magical world and promptly bought the whole book.
The book is set in the seventeenth century and we first meet Jahanara as a young girl, growing up in the royal palace, known as the Red Fort, with her brothers and sisters. The emperor, Shah Jahan, has numerous wives but his favourite is his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, Jahanara’s mother, and he is devastated when she dies in childbirth. Shah Jahan vows to build the world’s most impressive monument to honour Mumtaz’s memory and tasks his daughter with overseeing the build. Jahanara, trapped in a loveless marriage, is grateful for the diversion and soon finds herself falling in love with the architect, Isa.
As the building grows, Jahanara’s family begins to fall apart as her brothers Aurangzeb and Dara become bitter enemies. Dara, the eldest son, is their father’s intended heir, but he is deemed weak as he is more content studying than becoming a soldier. His younger brother, Aurangzeb, is disgusted by his brother’s tolerance for the Hindus who live among them and is soon stirring trouble. Meanwhile, Jahanara’s love for Isa becomes increasingly more dangerous as she gives birth to their daughter and continues to meet him in secret.
Despite the fact the author takes a lot of liberties with historical fact, I soon found myself drawn into his world and was able to let my niggles go easily enough. Jahanara and her family are Muslims, something I did not know, and I did feel Jahanara was given a lot more freedom than I figured Muslim women would be allowed. However, the real Jahanara became the First Lady of the Empire after the death of her mother so she was obviously a high ranking female in a powerful position. Jahanara was also Shah Jahan’s favourite daughter and he bestowed a lot of trust in her wisdom, just like he had done with her mother. The novel Jahanara doesn’t quite become as powerful but she is obviously her father’s favourite child and he places a lot of trust in her.
The love story between Jahanara and Isa is pure fabrication but it works well in the book and is beautifully explored even though the lovers don’t get to spend a lot of time together. I loved how Shah Jahan turned a blind eye to his daughter’s affair and even enabled it, after all he understands the power of love more than anyone. Again, part of me felt a Muslim father would not allow his daughter to be unfaithful to her husband but it was such a beautiful part of the story, I couldn’t help loving it.
Since the story is told in the first person narrative, Shors also does a great job of portraying female emotions and I think it is a ridiculous notion for some readers to feel a male author can’t do this credibly. Jahanara is a strong woman, in a time when women were valued less than men even if they were princesses, and she beats the odds to find her own happiness.
The historical background was also evocatively written and conjured up wonderful images of India at that time. I love books set in India before the arrival of the British so this book ticked all the boxes on that score card.