A Neo-Victorian Tale of India
The novel is set in the late 1830s, starting out in Calcutta and on the banks of the Ganges River. This work has a kind of old fashioned feel to it. The completed trilogy will run to over 1500 pages. There are a large number of characters, there is a lot of historical detail, there are a lot of unfamiliar terms used from slang of the period relating to the opium trade, seafaring and caste issues, and there are multiple plot threads open. Most of the characters have hidden aspects in their past. We see the near highest levels of wealth and the depth of poverty. Most of Sea of Poppies is devoted to introducing the people who will be on the ship the Isib (the trilogy is called The Ibis Trilogy) when it sails to Mauritius, a very remote isolated island in the Indian Ocean. (This is journey of near 3000 kilometers.)
Sea of Poppies has a lot of characters, enough to fill a Dickens novel. We learn the stories of each of the main characters and what lead up to them boarding the Ibis. A trip of this length was very hard and dangerous in this period as the book well shows us. Here are some of the main characters.
Deeti-a young widow who was rescued from Suttee when her husband dies by Kalua, the local village Ox man. In order to escape from her in laws (who wanted her burned as tradition required) she and Kalua commit themselves to become indentured servants to the owners of the Ibis.
Zachary Reed is an American, his mother was a slave and his father was the owner of his mother. The Ibis was at one time a slave carrying ship and Zachary has been on the ship since it was commissoned. The ship is really the only home he has ever known. Like all the characters, there are secrets about his past yet to be revealed. (I think this is part of the old fashioned feel of the novel. At anytime someone who seems to be a convict might be revealed to be a prince placed in chains by his enemies.)
Neel Halder-a wealthy Rajah falsely tried and convicted of forgery. Neel was sentenced to be transported to Mauritius as a convict and stripped of all his property. His family has to go live with one of his chief servants. In a telling moment in the narrative, Neel realizes that before then he did not even know his servant had his own house.
Ah Fatt-another convict being transported. He is an opium addict. When Neel is in prison waiting to be transported he learns that a transported convict has the lowest caste in the prison system. We see Neel coping with the incredible transformations in his life, from wealthy Rajah to convict. My guess is Ah Fatt for sure has a mysterious past and is not what he seems to be but we will have to wait to find out.
Paulette is French born teenager who is now an orphan. She is on the run from her guardians as they want to marry her off to a very old man.
There is a lot in this book. We get a good look at the pernicious influence of opium in India. We see how it is traded, how the poppies are turned into opium and how it destroys traditional culture. We learn a lot of nautical slang. We learn many expressions for occupations in the period. We learn a lot about the caste system. We learn a lot about life inside an Indian prison. (His prison scenes are really well done and can compare with classic Victorian depictions of prison life.) We get a good idea of how it might have felt to live in the period. We see the food, family relations, brothels, and clothing. We get a strong feel for the extreme diversity and richness of Indian Culture. We see the effects of colonialism. ( As I read this work I was reminded of Edmund Burke who argued that Indian should be set free as it was in fact a much older and in many ways richer culture than England)
I like Sea of Poppies a lot. It made be realize how little I know of Indian history. There are wonderful set pieces in the book, miniature narratives brilliantly done. The book does have an old fashioned feel. By this I mean it seems like it was written for a time when readers were happy to read what will eventually be a 1500 page character rich trilogy. It makes use of many words which will be unfamiliar to the reader who is not a scholar of the period. (In an appendix to the book, Ghosh indicates the authoritative sources for his use of expressions. My guess he has got his history and terms correct.) Ghosh takes his time building up to the start of the voyage. He is in no hurry. We know, shades of The Count of Monte Christo, that vengeance will be dealt out eventually. Sea of Poppies ends on a cliff hanger
Amitav Ghosh was born January 1, 1956 in Kolkata, India. He has a PhD in social anthropology from Oxford. He has written six novels as well as four collections of essays on a diverse range of topics.
I enjoyed this book a lot and I learned some interesting things from it. Some might want a bit faster paced book, I think. I will for sure read the next book in the Ibis Trilogy. (The Sea of Poppies does leave us hanging.) If I come upon other historical novel by Ghosh there is a good chance I will buy them. I looked at Ghosh's other works on Goodreads.com and, of course, I want to read them all but I was wondering if anyone has any suggestions as to my next Ghosh or South Asian Novel-thanks
I am reading this work for the following challenges
South Asia Challenge
Read Before I Die Challenge
Historical Fiction Challenge
New Authors Challenge (new to you)