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

Friday, April 6, 2012

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh (2011, 528 pages)

Most of my blogging and reading time since March 11 has been devoted to my Irish Short Story Week Year Two Project, which will for sure end on July 1.  I  am continuing to read other longer works and as I finish them I will post on them and where I can I will try to relate what I read to Irish Short Stories.  In the case of a massive novel set around India in the mid 19th century the connection is very simple, both Ireland and India were under the yoke of the British Empire.  The similarities and differences in how the English ruled and shaped the two culture is a huge topic.  By understanding the British rule in one part of the empire our understanding can help us understand the other area.

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh (India) is the sequel  to his 2009 Sea of Poppies, which I read and posted on in January of 2010.  I liked The Sea of Poppies a lot.  It 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 Ibis (the trilogy is called The Ibis Trilogy) when  it sails to Mauritius, a very remote isolated island in the Indian Ocean.   

River of Smoke is an odd kind of sequel.   When Sea of Poppies came to a close we were left at a cliffhanging place in the narrative and the lives of the central characters, they are  on a ship during a terrible storm in the Indian ocean.   River of Smoke focuses not so much on the people on the one ship but on those in two other ships that are also caught up in the storm.

The book is really almost a history lesson about the effects of the Opium trade and about 100 + other things.   The author has a PhD in cultural anthropology from Oxford and there is a huge amount to be learned from his book.   I was fascinated to read the description of plant hunters in China.   

I will say this book was not as exciting as Sea of Poppies but if you would enjoy a massive historical novel set in India and China in the middle of the 19th century, I do not think you will find a better researched, more information packed and better written pair of books than Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke.     

I guess the final work in the trilogy will be out in 2013 or 2014 and I am sure Ghosh will tie all of the loose ends together in the final novel.

Mel u


Fiona said...

I got this straight away when it came out but of course, yet to read it! I wanted to re-read Sea of Poppies first but I just never got around to it. I can't wait to read this though. I love Amitav ghosh, I always feel like I've learnt something new.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Mel, I enjoyed your review of RIVER OF SMOKE by one of the finest writers in English today. Ghosh keeps the reader engaged and absorbed from page one.

Lisa Hill said...

I've read and reviewed both these books and really enjoyed them, see

Ghosh is a master storyteller and what I liked was that I was painlessly learning history that wasn't from the Eurocentric POV we're used to here in Australia. And while River of Smoke is historical fiction, its theme of exploring the impact of unfettered trade is very relevant today.

Caroline said...

What a post, makes one really want to read this story immediately.
Thanks mel, for giving Ethel the opportunity for this guest post.

JoV said...

I gave up reading Sea of Poppies and I really would like to read the series one day. Thanks for the review.

The Insouciant Sophisticate said...

I have been dying over that cliffhanger and he doesn't even directly answer it?! I think I will wait for the third book to come out before picking this up. Then I can read them all together because I definitely appreciate and admire what Ghosh is doing here.

Mel u said...

Fiona-reading this and Sea of Poppies was for sure learning experience for me

Prashant C. Trikannad-thanks for your kind words and comments as always

Lisa Hill-that is exactly how I feel about the novels-

Mel u said...

Jov-Maybe it is best just to wait until all three of the novels are out so you can read them back to back

Bookworm1858-I think you are right-I would suggest to those who have not yet started the trilogy to wait until part three comes out-Ghosh is writing a work in the Grand tradition of the Victorian novel and I also admire him for doing so-you can see he has a PhD from Oxford from all the details