starlady: Anna Maria from PoTC at the helm: "bring me that horizon" (bring me that horizon)
[personal profile] starlady
Ghosh, Amitav. Sea of Poppies. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2008.

I think I first heard about this novel from [personal profile] coffeeandink's review, but it was when [personal profile] dhobikikutti and others urged me to read it at a dinner that I finally moved it to my "to buy" pile. I finally read it because I've been invited to a summer book club for the follow-up, River of Smoke.

This is one of those books that I would strongly consider assigning in a history class, because it's about history--the history of the British Empire in Asia as it was lived by some very interesting characters--in the way that the best historical fiction is, at the same time that it's also unabashedly having fun with history in the way that the best novels do. I've made it sound stodgy, though, and it's anything but. (The story towards the end about the threesome who led the flotilla of pirates off the southern coast of China? Completely historically accurate!)

The novel is about, to try to summarize an intensely and consciously complex book, the group of people who will find themselves, by the end of the book, bound for the Mauritius Islands aboard the retrofitted slave ship Ibis. These people come from all walks of life and all corners of the globe: there's a half-Chinese, half-Indian convict, an ex-raja from Calcutta, several former poppy farmers from Bengal, a French naturalist and her brother, a Muslim boatman, a mulatto carpenter turned sailor turned officer from Baltimore, various British officers and empire-builders, various sailors and soldiers of fortune from around the Indian Ocean. They are of all faiths and genders as well as backgrounds, and one of the real joys of the novel is the brio and clarity with which Ghosh summons their various Englishes. The glossary of Anglo-Indian and laskari terms later produced by one of the characters at the back of the book is one of its sublimest pleasures.

I suspect it takes some knowledge of the time period, and of the history of colonialism in India and China, to truly appreciate all the nuances that Ghosh packs into this book, or to feel the palpable shiver of dread that I did on page six, when--deliberately at the end of the paragraph--Ghosh's narrative finally intones the crucial word "opium." For this book is set on the cusp of the Opium Wars, and even as Ghosh depicts with a keen edge the extent to which opium has already deranged the economy and society of China and India, especially Bengal, it's only going to get worse in the future. I don't know of a commodity that has done more to denature whole societies, at a very real cost of human misery. The British Empire, to be clear, was built on--as one character says--"drugs and thugs," and Ghosh understands this well. He understands too (I saw shades of Orwell's Burmese Days in this, actually) the complicated transactions and hierarchies of race and language and sex and power that empire creates, authorizes, and operates by, and they are depicted too with fidelity. As much as the novel is about these deeper currents of power and history, the characters, one senses, are the rare people who will be borne up by them like the foam on the waves.

That said, I could have done without the Evil Gay Nautical Disciplinarian trope rearing its ugly head in the last few pages, and I'm not too sure how I feel about how the narrative handled Munia, Who Likes Sex. That aside, though, I loved all the characters except the ones I hated, such as Benjamin Burnham, the pious imperialist. I only wish he weren't accurate to life.

It's a great book, though, hilarious and frenetic and heartfelt and a rollicking adventure yarn, and for all of you who are interested in families of choice, this is a story for you.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-05-21 17:08 (UTC)
naraht: (Default)
From: [personal profile] naraht
...the Evil Gay Nautical Disciplinarian trope...

"Claggart! John Claggart!"

(Yes, I've been proofreading a dissertation about Britten's Billy Budd.)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-05-21 17:49 (UTC)
laurashapiro: a woman sits at a kitchen table reading a book, cup of tea in hand. Table has a sliced apple and teapot. A cat looks on. (Default)
From: [personal profile] laurashapiro
I loved this book, and have been reading other Ghosh novels avidly. The audio versions of all of them are terrific, too.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-05-21 22:04 (UTC)
laurashapiro: a woman sits at a kitchen table reading a book, cup of tea in hand. Table has a sliced apple and teapot. A cat looks on. (Default)
From: [personal profile] laurashapiro
Ooh, I haven't got either of those...::makes a note::

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