Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sea of Poppies


Amitav Ghosh is one of those writers whose books I eagerly wait for. Usually, there is about a four year drought in between his books but then you have to add a few years to that if, like me, you are really waiting only for his novels. When Sea of Poppies was released in 2008 (and nominated for the Man Booker that year!) I was lucky enough to get an ARC of it! Thrilling! It's historical fiction! I'm practically panting! And then...the let down. Sea of Poppies is the first in a planned trilogy about the opium trade lead by the British through India and China in the 19th century. A trilogy? That is wonderfully exciting news but that means that in all probability part three wouldn't be in my hot little hands until 2019. 2019. What's a girl to do? I decided to exercise my patience and wait to read #1 until at least #2 came out.

Yeah. That was the plan. Now I have a new plan. The new plan is that I read Sea of Poppies last week and that I read #2 (no release date yet) when #3 is published. That is a much better plan. I am completely on board with the new plan.

Sea of Poppies is old fashioned historical fiction. There is a group of desperate characters: sailors, coolies, Princes, landlords, merchants, addicts, mothers, children, mistresses and working girls all coming together in a time of crisis and potential profiteering. This cast of thousands is also a bit of a United Nations jamboree as well with Indians, Chinese, British, American and French populating northern India in 1838 just prior to the start of the Opium Wars. The initial common thread for all of these characters is the schooner, the Ibis and her amusingly motley crew. The Ibis is a former slave ship that has come to India from America. It becomes the controlled environment in which Ghosh can let loose his magnificent creations as well as his endless research on this time period.

Ghosh freely uses the colloquial speech and the antique slang of his diverse group. This gives the novel immediate realism but it can also be difficult to get through. A dictionary in the back of the book would have been very nice but that said my lack of linguistic knowledge didn't diminish my intense enjoyment of this novel.

Amitav Ghosh is a consummate storyteller and with Sea of Poppies he has a lot of different stories to tell. He's married up Dickensian intricacies and eccentric characters, the adventure and intrigue of Dumas to the natural realism of R. K. Narayan in a magnificently addictive novel about colonialism, capitalism and culture. All the classical historical fiction adjectives apply to Sea of Poppies: epic, vast, visionary, breathtaking, dramatic, sweeping, panoramic, etc. but Ghosh doesn't sacrifice the intimacies of everyday life and struggles in order to paint a grand canvas.

It's quite restful reading a novel that you know won't end at the last page. No farewells to anticipate when you are 20 pages from the ending. Sea of Poppies works as a free-standing novel and that's terrific but I immensely happy that it's part one of three.


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