Beneath a Marble Sky - John Shors

I've been enamored with the story of the Taj Mahal since I was a little girl, but then what bookish, introverted girl hasn't at some point in their life. It's a gorgeous story of love that lives beyond death, and it's true to boot! I sometimes hear Mumtaz and her man, Shah Jahan, compared to King Arthur and Maid Marian, but as of yet King Arthur's existence has not been definitively proven. And even by legend standards, Maid Marian was having a little side dish of Sir Lancelot, so it's hard to see them as equal on romantic levels (though Maid Marian did take her guilt ridden tail to a nunnery... nah, nevermind, not the same). The Taj Mahal came about after Mumtaz, beloved wife (of many) of Shah Jahan died in childbirth trying to bring her 14th --- or was it 16th? I always get confused on that -- child into the world. Though Mumtaz was not Jahan's only wife, she was his favorite. He was crushed, losing his best friend in the world, the person he trusted most. He wanted a memorial that would give generations to come an idea of the true beauty of Mumtaz. The tomb is made of white marble with interiors of bejeweled walls and carved flowers (that's how I've heard it described in books anyway). Of all the sites I've been mentally bookmarking since childhood to see one day, this place has always been way high on my list.

 

 

 

"Women, Arjumand, women are taught that there's no strength in our tears. But why are tears powerless, if those tears lead to insight, or a sense of peace?" ~ Jahanara to her daughter

 

Author John Shors wrote Beneath A Marble Sky after a trip he took with his brother in 1999 to see this famed monument of love. Shors' brother was actually the one to give him the first inkling of an idea for a story. It took a year of research and 56 edits of the manuscript to get the story publication ready (Shors goes into all this in his afterword). I was curious about when this book was published -- 1st in 2004, then in 2006. So this book was definitely labor intensive for Shors. I read A TON of historical fiction (honestly, I think at least about 80% of my library falls under this genre) and I can honestly say there is a good read here. I'm not so sold that it's a great read though. The drama is there, the history bits are there, but something fell flat with the realism in the characters. Shors admits that he takes a good deal of creative license with historical facts (the basic facts of the time remain true but the details of Jahanara's love story, the blood feud between the brothers, etc are largely imagined). I'm guessing Shors wanted to tell a story that wouldn't be exclusively interesting to just history geeks, and I read enough actual history books, familiarizing myself with what really went down with a particular moment in history that I don't get all bent out of shape if someone wants to play what if... a little bit. Truthfully, reading historical fiction actually helps me remember the real events that much better. I can't quite pinpoint what went wrong with the story for me, except that I just didn't connect with the characters as I had hoped. I think the relationship between Mumtaz and Jahan was written very well... definitely felt the love there. Aurangzeb was definitely evil and Khondamir was a special kind of douchebag but with everyone else, I found myself anticipating something that never seemed to come to fruition. I do love Shors' answer though, when asked what the hardest part of writing this novel was: "Let's just say that writing in the first person as a seventeenth century Hindustani woman wasn't completely natural to me." Who knows, that little fact may be the source of my trouble connecting with some of the characters. But I do love that answer. As my Anatomy / Physiology professor used to say regarding his brutal exams (and students' fondness of made up answers just to avoid the dreaded blank answer sheets) "I give you points for entertaining me!"


So, something didn't fully translate for me in this book but that's not to say I won't try Shors' other books. He's got a few others that sound like something I'd enjoy so I'm all for trying again. And like I said, even with Beneath A Marble Sky, there's a pretty good story here! Maybe not the epic love story that still resounds with me years later, but still worth going along for the ride.

 

The Taj Mahal seen from the banks of river Yamuna, courtesy of David Castor