Sea of Poppies – Amitav Ghosh, shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2008. The first in the Ibis trilogy (the others River of Smoke, Flood of Fire).
A glorious, rollicking yarn in the time-honoured tradition of storytelling, Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies follows a disparate group of characters first individually and then together as they forge fantastic connections through a series of increasingly peculiar vagaries of fate.
The novel is set in India (Calcutta) before the first Opium War and Opium provides an extra off-stage character to the book as all are directly or indirectly affected by it.
The River Hooghly itself is the life force that flows through the adventure, ebbing and rising and inexorably drawing the characters together.
The main protagonists are Deeti, a strong country woman who is bound by tradition to suffer a bad marriage, but whose resilience through adversity is a grounding force to those around her.
Neele, a pampered aesthete minor Rajah who is manipulated by the greed of the British colonialists and the envy of some in the lower castes.
Zachary, a light-skinned negro sailor, who observes everything from both black and white perspectives.
Paulette and Joshua, white and black who grew up in the same household and have a strong, protective sibling kinship.
Nob Kissin Baboo is one of the most fabulous characters We’ve had the pleasure to come across in a book in a long time. Humorous, wise, ridiculous, kind, pragmatic- he is a delight to encounter. A wonderful comic creation, the reader is repelled by him and drawn to him all within the space of a single paragraph.
There are Lascar sailors, (whose story forms an umbrella over the whole),
perverse and market driven entrepreneurs, heroic and pure giants, delightfully language mangling grizzled river pilots, houris and courtesans, kite flying innocents, cross-dressing, mystical transformations, it’s a cavalcade of intense colour and hilarious movement.
Everybody’s favourite blue God even makes an appearance. Or does he ?
And of course, this being India, Amidst all the dazzling colour and flamboyant movement there are quite a few millions just standing about trying to get on as best they can.
This unlikely assortment of individuals are eventually somehow thrown together on the Ibis voyage and through the edifice of Ghosh’s mightily imaginative construction you become with them, suffering their pain, injustices, the fickleness of Fate, you revel in their triumphs and their resilience.
The only tiny criticism we have is that the story ends somewhat abruptly. One second you are rushing along on an incensed cloud of delight, the next you run smack bang into a wall. You feel abandoned, the denouement is too hasty, perhaps because the writing is so very delicious you feel as if the beautiful creature in your embrace has simply turned into smoke and vanished.
On the other hand Ghosh concludes by (very suddenly) lining up a glorious ensemble of ridiculous and wonderfully drawn characters all primed for future tantalising adventures.
We can’t wait to read River of Smoke.