In The Palace Of Flowers has been pure escapism for me over the past few days. Everything about it is insistent on me being somewhere else. The time, place, social norms, the sex even.
I love historical fiction for teaching me about historical paradigms I have barely any idea about. In this case, no idea. Victoria Princewill writes of a perspective and placement has somehow missed me entirely until now. A facet of African history away from the limited narratives often available.
Inspired by the only existing first person narrative of an Abyssinian slave in Iran, Jamila Habashi, In The Palace Of Flowers recreates the opulent Persian Royal Court of the Qatar at the end of the 19th Century. Watching a funeral held for a Persian nobleman, Jamila realises that her life will never be acknowledged or mourned with the same significance. The fear of being forgotten, of being irrelevant, sets her and Abimelech, a fellow Abyssinian slave and a eunuch, on a path to find meaning, navigating the dangerous and deadly politics of the royal court, both in the government and the harem, before leading her to the radicals that lie beyond its walls.
Jamila’s determination and will toward risk is an eye opener
Jamila’s perspective as an enslaved African in Iran is entirely new to me. Even in her oppression, her insistence on forging her own path is inspiring, refreshing. Abimelech beside her, She navigates the the society that has been imposed on her. The harems, and the formidable women who control them. The eunuchs, a bratty Prince Nosrat, a completely self important Shah. This completely unfettered access to bodies, fuelled by fluid desires. Access to knowledge that some revere, others take for granted.
Ambition and palpable atmosphere drive the narrative. I am at a point where I can see Jamila feels she is by no means resigned to her position permanently. Through her social interactions with her (many) supposed superiors and through her relentless intellectual pursuits, she can see a potential to fly beyond her tier in the hierarchy completely.
What I find attractive about the story is her insistence on holding her own destiny. On not allowing her role to dampen her quest to matter beyond her service. To be remembered and have a legacy as important as anyone else’s. To acquire knowledge. A girl is willing to risk it all just for the privilege of learning about literature, politics and art outside the Palace walls!
An immersive experience
The writing is measured and elegant. The dialogue sounds like it belongs somewhere else entirely, so it did take a few pages to get used to. I’m enjoying taking my time and absorbing at leisure. At first, the description of exotic landscapes and unfamiliar mannerisms disoriented me! With each read, the vivid imagery becomes mine a bit more.
At every level, Victoria Princewill explores that universal need to be valued and have purpose. As much inherent in the Prince as it is in his servants and his father’s concubines. The book addresses class and ownership of personhood
In The Palace Of Flowers is immersive and does require some patience. In true reflection of the palace’s royalty, it feels like the writer was under no obligation to time. The plot is playing to its own tempo, feeling less defined at times. I am halfway through and have only a small idea of what will happen here. I can only imagine the scandals and betrayals, what the radicals might know. I’m definitely intrigued to find out.
Thank you to Cassava Republic for sending me a proof copy to review
In The Palace Of Flowers by Victoria Princewill is out on 25th February , published by Cassava Press. Available to order