This being my inaugural blog post (and first book review of any sort for the Odyssey) I could not ask for a better book with which to introduce myself than this: I have just started Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh's newest novel, due out in October. I am a long time Ghosh fan and count The Hungry Tide among my list of favorites, so I was quite excited when Emily Russo, our Events Coordinator, handed me an advance copy of Sea of Poppies. I was even more thrilled to find that the book opens in Ghazipur, not far from the dusty village in India where I lived for a year. I was hooked before I had even turned the first page.
Sea of Poppies is the first volume in what promises to be a rousing and enlightening trilogy about the British opium trade during the early 19th century and the ways in which it altered the lives of a myriad cast of characters. Vast in scope, Sea of Poppies spans multiple continents, traverses both land and sea, and weaves together the narratives of a motley crew of ship-bound strangers.
Many of Ghosh's books focus on characters who straddle cultures, countries with impossible to define borders, and regions with shifting lands; in The Hungry Tide island villages emerge and disappear each hurricane season, The Glass Palace explores the rise and dissolution of political regimes, nations and empires. In each of these, Ghosh forces readers to consider how history reveals the most enduring and seemingly stable of things to be ultimately tenuous, as ever changing as the ebb and flow of the ocean. Sea of Poppies is no exception.
The point of convergence for Sea of Poppies' characters is an ocean vessel called the Ibis. The Ibis is a retired slaving ship from the Americas that has been acquired by a British merchant who wishes to conscript it for the British East India Company's opium trade with China, which operated out of the Bay of Bengal. As a result, Ghosh sets up both Sea of Poppies, and ostensibly the trilogy as a whole, so that much of the action will take place in and around the Bay of Bengal and its many tributaries in India, across the ocean and toward the Chinese coast.
Bodies of water are a recurring theme across Ghosh's works and often form the unifying element of individual novels. By centering this new tale on the Ibis, Ghosh further distances himself, and his characters, from identifying with or planting their feet on any one land, nation, religion, or culture. His characters are either rootless or uprooted early on in the book, each instance of which serves as the impetus that guides them toward the Ibis. In addition to being a captivating narrative, this rootlessness makes Sea of Poppies a pointed comment on the struggles of displaced colonized peoples and on the rippling effects of colonial expansion. Ghosh spends some time early in the novel describing how the opium trade effectively pushed all other crops out of many Indian farmers' fields, forcing those farmers into increasing debt as they took advances and loans to cover the expense of buying the basic foods that they had previously grown. A virtue that Ghosh's books consistently reveal is his ability to make history come alive while drawing the reader's attention to stories often washed over in traditional historical accounts.
The language of Sea of Poppies also takes on an interesting historical dimension. The novel is written in English, but Ghosh calls attention to English's role as a colonizing tongue and does not position it as an assumed norm of the time. Rather, his characters' dialogue reveals English to be as eccentric and confusing a language as laskar, the sea-specific language of the sailors, or culurally based and geographically specific as perhaps Bhojpuri, a local Indian dialect. This is nowhere more evident than in the person of Mr. Doughty, an Indian-born Englishman, whose unique mixture of languages is both mildly humorous and indicative of the nature of cultural exchange that resulted from colonial commerce.
To say that Sea of Poppies is a complicated novel would perhaps be appropriate. However, Ghosh's style might be better characterized as involved and elaborate. Ghosh's language is beautiful, rich with detail, and the amount of historical research that went into Sea of Poppies is incredibly evident, but his characters' dialogue can at times require some deciphering, aided in part by a glossary that appears at the end, written as if it were the record of a character in the novel.
If there is one criticism I'm inclined to pose, it's that Sea of Poppies might over-indulge Ghosh's penchant for extreme detail in pursuit of historical authenticity. It is a delicate balance that allows his works to seem incredibly present and brings characters into sharp focus, but which threatens to become distracting as his use of multiple languages and list of terms becomes ever larger and more unwieldy. It remains to be seen if embarking on a trilogy alleviates or exacerbates this tendency.
For now, I will continue to both forgive and enjoy Ghosh for his resurrection of the laskar's language and his fusion of Hindi and English, because it was those very details that made me feel completely transported to the Sundarbans in The Hungry Tide and that I hope will keep me sailing on the Ibis through all three novels.