Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"Sea of Poppies" by Amitav Ghosh

A Neo-Victorian Tale of India
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh (2008, 469 pages) is part one of a trilogy.   Part two is scheduled to be published in 2010.   Sea of Poppies was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2008.

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 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
Global Challenge
Read Before I Die Challenge
Historical Fiction Challenge
New Authors Challenge (new to you)

Mel u


Michelle (su[shu]) said...

I've heard some wonderful things about this novel, but I didn't know it was part one to a trilogy!

I don't know much about Indian history either. But if the novel's got Asia as its setting, and opium as one of it's main themes, then I think I should start hunting for it now.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Excellent review! I did not realize this was the 1st of a trilogy. I am planning to read this book in 2010. Thanks for the info.

JoAnn said...

Another great review of a book already on my wish list...makes me want to get to it even sooner!

Suko said...

Mel, now I know why you didn't post for a while--you were too busy reading. This sounds like a great choice for many of your reading challenges. Thanks for a terrific, in-depth review.

Stefanie said...

I just requested this from the library yesterday because so many people as saying such good things about it!

Ana said...

Yes, Ghosh draws from Dickens as well, and it was not until I read your review that I realized that indeed the jail description is done in the same style as in Little Dorrit. And I also just realized he studied antroplogy –that might explain his ability to recreate the atmosphere of the époque. Thank you for the links and wonderful review…

claire said...

Mel, thanks for the link love. Glad you liked it, too! And I can definitely see the Dickensian feel, which is probably why I loved it so much. Can't wait for the next installment. Do you have an idea when it's coming out?

Mel u said...

Michelle-I hope you like it and will be interested to hear your thoughts on the book


Joann-I hope you can read it soon

Suko-thanks as always

Stefanie-I hope you enjoy it and will be very curious to read your thoughts on the book

Ana-yes the jail scene is very Little Dorriot in all ways nearly

Claire-I read somewhere that the second book in the Ibis Trilogy will be out in 2010 -thanks as always

Kristen said...

Great review. I didn't realize that this was meant to be the start of a trilogy. Might need to get to it now if the next book is slated to come out this year.

Wendy said...

Thanks so much for a thoughtful review and for giving a cross link to my review. I loved this book! Can't wait for the next one in the trilogy. I've added a link to your review to my review :)

Anonymous said...

I read The Calcutta Chromosome by Ghosh many years ago and remember enjoying it a lot. And a friend of mine loved The Glass Palace. This books looks like it's going to be one great epic. And the cover art of the hardback version is beautiful.

Fiona said...

I love Amitav Ghosh and I think I have all of his books now...

As well as this one I've read The Glass Palace and The Hungry Tide both which I really liked and would definitely recommend.

I love how he uses history - he almost gives you a history lesson in each book but he makes it so interesting and so absorbing. I really want to re-read The Hungry Tide because I feel even though I enjoyed it a lot at the time of reading - I didn't give it my whole attention.

I think Sea of Poppies is my favourite so far - he seemed to have a lot of fun with this one then with the others. I'm not sure how to explain this - with his others it felt like he wanted to give you a bit of a history lesson - but with this one he felt more immersed in the story and the words.

I can't wait for the next one - really hope it doesn't take too long. He takes bloody forever between publishing books!

M (notarevolution) said...

I saw your recent tweet about this post just a few seconds ago, literally moments before starting the book. I didn't know it was the start of a planned trilogy- that will probably add to and shape my perceptions of it.

Incidentally, I had to comment too because The Count of Monte Cristo is something I plan on reading soon.

Booksnyc said...

This book is on my must read list for 2011 - thanks for your review!

I read Glass Palace a few years ago - it was amazing - a real epic tale. It sounds like Sea of Poppies (especially as part of a trilogy) is also a epic tale.