Monday, July 24, 2017

Sea of Poppies

Amitav Ghosh
Here, she said, taste it.  It is the star that took us from our homes and put us on this ship.  It is the planet that rules our destiny.
- Deeti, describing a poppy seed

I have had Amitav Ghosh' Sea of Poppies on my radar since it was published.  It's the first book in a trilogy centered on a ship, the Ibis.  In the first book, the Ibis is transitioning from its previous life as a slave transporting vessel to one that transports coolies and opium.  It begins its journey on the Ganges River in India, and then sets out on an ocean voyage with an amazingly rich cast of characters on board.

I loved this book.  I am in absolute awe at the breadth and depth that is encompassed within its pages, and I am so excited to read the next two books in the series to see just how much more Ghosh has to share with me.  There are some authors who truly astonish me with just how much they can pack into their pages - character development, plot advancement, social commentary, historical accuracy.  It's books like this one that make reading a continued delight.

Sea of Poppies is set just at the start of the first Opium War.  We don't learn much about the Opium Wars in the west (or at least not in the United States), so it was fascinating to learn more about a period that had such a massive impact on the world (and was a cause of World War I).  The British Empire reeeeeeeally wanted China to open up to global trade, but the Chinese did not want to.  This angered the British, and thus, Opium Wars.  China was forced to cede Hong Kong and open up ports to global trade, and the British got to sell their stuff to more people.  They also got access to indentured laborers (coolies) from Asia and South Asia since slavery was no longer an option for them.

Thus, Sea of Poppies is set just as globalization and imperialism really get their groove on, and the scope of this book is absolutely immense because of that.  There are Indian farmers who are forced to grow poppies instead of food, and fall into debt.  There is a mixed race American man trying to make his way in the world.  There are pirates and merchant marines.  There's an Indian raja who is humiliated by debt to the English, stripped of his title and wealth, and forced to go abroad as an indentured servant.  There are, of course, the English, raking in great wealth and secure in their vision of bringing civilization to India and China.  And there's more.  The characters in this book are fantastic.

And those characters speak in a gloriously rich variety of languages.  Honestly, this is where Ghosh's comedic genius really sparkles.  Obviously, a book centered on a former slave ship that now transports opium can have many dark and depressing moments.  But the way Ghosh uses language and shows how so many disparate languages can be combined and influence each other is so great.  It took me a little while to understand some of the English spellings and mispronunciations of the Hindi words, but once I did, I usually smiled or laughed to myself.  They were nice little Easter eggs for people who have some understanding of Indian language.  I myself do not know Hindi, but am familiar enough with common words and names to have caught on.  It was so well-done, and the book includes a glossary at the back for many of the words, too.

And with all of THAT happening, Ghosh doesn't ever lose sight of telling a fantastic story.  Here is a very compelling tale about the wide-ranging impact of colonialism and imperialism, related through extremely personal stories.  I loved that we get to know not only about how the Indian ruling class lost so much of its power and prestige to the British, but also get to learn about the farmers who suffered and the enterprising middle-class professionals who cashed out.  I was thoroughly engrossed in learning more about how Hinduism was practiced in the 19th century, the obsessions with caste and purity and superstition, and how differently it is practiced today.  Ghosh uses India as the setting, but the cast is from everywhere, all doing their best to make their way in a world.  Most of the characters are pushing against rules and norms that have dictated their whole lives, whether due to race or caste or income or sex.  And yet, they all come together on a ship and those rules are tested.  You can see just how huge the social shifts in the 19th century were, all over the world, from societies of rigid class structures based on birth to more malleable ones based on wealth and influence.  I loved that, and I loved this book.  So excited to read the rest of this series!

11 comments:

  1. I need to read this book. I had been told that, but your review makes it clear!

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    1. It is so good, Jeanne! And I think that you would really appreciate it, based on the other books you like :-)

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  2. I loved Ghosh's climate change non-fiction that I read earlier this year and really need to read his fiction!

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    1. Ohmigosh, I will have to get on that! Once I finish his fiction, I'll get on the non-fiction. I hope his superb narrative style translates to non-fiction. Though I wonder if people who are not convinced of the situation would read his book...

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  3. I read this a few years ago and enjoyed it too. Your review has reminded me of all the things I loved about it, especially the richness of the language. The other two books are great too - I'm envious that you still have them to look forward to!

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    1. Oh, I'm so glad the two sequels are also good! Sometimes, that doesn't always play out. I have the second one on my shelf, so hopefully I will get to it soon!

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  4. I have had this on my shelves for years, too. Your ringing endorsement is one more reason that I really should pick it up!

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    1. I know that ringing endorsements only sometimes compel me to read a book sooner rather than later, so I understand how it can continue sitting on your shelf! Just know that, when you get to it, it's worth the effort :-)

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  5. It's been on my wishlist since forever. Nice review. Makes me want to read it now.

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  6. I love this book so much. The second one is really good, too! I need to read the final book in the trilogy, but I've forgotten so much about the first two that I think I need to reread them first (and I've heard that the third book is not quite so great).

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  7. I know we've talked about this, but man, I am just so excited that you got to read this and that you enjoyed it. Sea of Poppies is an awesome book, and though the sequel isn't THE MOST sequelly, it's still very good. I will be interested to learn if you like the third one or if you find it disappointing, as I did. (Basically it has some consent stuff that put me all the way off.)

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