Trigger warnings for rape and intimate partner violence.
One of the most useful questions I learned as a young English major was, “Who is rewarded in the end?” The literary version of cui bono has helped me understand what I’m supposed to take from a book more than once. It certainly helped when I read In the Palace of Flowers, by Victoria Princewell and was stunned by a surprise ending that I didn’t expect at all. This novel follows the fortunes of two enslaved Abyssinians (Ethiopians) in the court of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar at the end of his reign in the mid-1890s. Abimelech, a eunuch in service to one of the many princes, has faith that he will be rewarded for his hard work and loyalty. Jamila, who serves one of the even more numerous royal wives, is much less trusting. This absorbing novel takes us deep into the harem at Golestan Palace, in Tehran, and the maelstrom of politics, betrayal, sex, and endless plotting.
In the Palace of Flowers is bookended by funerals. The funeral at the beginning of the novel is hardly a funeral at all, and Jamila and Abimelech spend some time reflecting on how little the life of a slave in the Persian Empire is worth before they depart to their work serving two spoiled, unworldly members of the sprawling Qajar family. The funeral at the end of the book is of much more consequence, but it leaves Jamila at least wondering how on earth an enslaved person can make any lasting mark on the world. The author’s afterword offers a bit of an answer; Princewell reveals that the inspiration for this book comes from a short biography written by an enslaved Abyssinian woman named Jamila Habashi, one of the few we know of who left evidence of her life.
Both Abimelech and Jamila have been physically and sexually abused by the people who enslave them. They continue to serve because the only other option is immediate, callous execution. But their responses to their treatment are very different. Jamila’s outlook is, to me, very understandable. In the cutthroat world of the harem, she knows well that everyone is fighting to get closer to the shah. They’ll use rumor or poison or whatever weapons they can get their hands to climb over each other and get a little higher on the ladder. Jamila has no illusions. Abimelech, on the other hand, is surprisingly naive in spite of all his learning and intelligence. Their plots run in parallel—with Abimelech counseling Jamila to patience and obedience and Jamila pointing out the general nastiness of everyone around them—requiring us to question which approach will be better. Will virtue be rewarded? Or will cunning?
In addition to the almost Shakespearean stories of Jamila and Abimelech, I marveled at the way that Princewell brings the people and places of mid-1890s Golestan Palace back to life. I know absolutely nothing about this time and this place—which is why I jumped at the chance to read this book. It’s clear Princewell did a lot of research on the language, customs, and politics of the era to create such an absorbing story. More than once I had to run to Wikipedia to get a little more background on the Qajars or Nowruz or Farsi, but I don’t mind this at all. I prefer historical fiction where the plot doesn’t bow under the weight of explanations and exposition. Like all good historical fiction, the plot steps into the research like a suit of period-accurate clothing. In the Palace of Flowers is one of the best historical novels I’ve read in a long time.
Note about the publication date: I try to time my reviews to appear about a month before a book is published. In the case of this book, the publication date changed after I started reading and I don’t want to wait months to post the review.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.