Tuesday, December 2, 2014
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
Published October 2008 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Narrated by Phil Gigante
Source: this audiobook purchased at my local library book sale
At the heart of this vibrant saga is a vast ship, the Ibis. Its destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean; its purpose, to fight China’s vicious nineteenth-century Opium Wars. As for the crew, they are a motley array of sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts.
In a time of colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a diverse cast of Indians and Westerners, from a bankrupt raja to a widowed tribeswoman, from a mulatto American freedman to a freespirited French orphan. As their old family ties are washed away, they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais, or ship-brothers. An unlikely dynasty is born, which will span continents, races, and generations.
The vast sweep of this historical adventure spans the lush poppy fields of the Ganges, the rolling high seas, the exotic backstreets of Canton. But it is the panorama of characters, whose diaspora encapsulates the vexed colonial history of the East itself, that makes Sea of Poppies so breathtakingly alive—a masterpiece from one of the world’s finest novelists.
Do you ever read those publisher's summaries and wonder if the person who wrote them actually read the book? This summary says that the purpose of the Ibis is to fight China's Opium Wars. That may well be the purpose of the Ibis in the upcoming books that make up the trilogy Sea of Poppies is a part of but it was only just discussed in this book. The Ibis sailed into India to be refitted - in it's past it had been a slave ship; the intention now was to make it a ship to carry opium. First, though, it would carry a cargo of indentured servants to the Mauritius Islands. The very fact that the ship has these multiple identities allows Ghosh to delve into a myriad of subjects that helped keep the novel interesting despite sometimes long passages about the workings of ships and the very distracting voices employed by Phil Gigante.
Sea of Poppies is, undoubtedly, one of those novels which just should not be read by only one narrator. Gigante does a fine job of narrative parts of the book and the Englishmen's voices. But he struggles with the Indian characters' voices (the majority sounded like caricatures and one even sounded Asian) and there are just so many characters that it's difficult for one person to give them each individual voices. On the other hand, Gigante does an admirable job of pronouncing Indian names, places and phrases making the audio version of the book preferable what my brain might have done to them had I read this book rather than listened to it.
Ghosh has created a novel full of interesting, multi-dimensional non-Caucasian characters, with developed histories and motives. His English characters were more one-dimensional, interested only in money, appearances, and keeping up the British Empire. I know this kind of story's been told before from the British point of view, where the "white man's" motivations all appear noble and, perhaps, that's why Ghosh elected only to explore the darker side of their motives. No doubt about it, there were darker sides and I thoroughly enjoyed getting schooled on this part of history - the fact that it was the British that brought opium to China and that opium represented the only way that Britain could offset their massive trade deficit with China.
It's a grand adventure that really ramps up as the book gets going and by moving back and forth between characters Ghosh really pulls his readers along on the journey. With it's exploration of caste and color, blend of humor and drama, and historical setting, Ghosh has crafted a novel that feels much shorter than it is.
I enjoyed Sea of Poppies very much...right up to the end. Which doesn't feel like an ending at all. I wasn't aware when I started this book that it was part of a trilogy. Had I been, I'm sure I would have passed on it; I rarely start series, knowing how bad I am at finishing them. Other reviewers have said this book works well as a stand alone novel. I felt more like I had reached the season-ending cliffhanger of a television series.