Sea of Poppies

It can be difficult to get to know people who are different from us. Differences in race, social class, educational level, language, and cultural background can create barriers that make communication and understanding a struggle.

As a reader, I initially felt profoundly separated from the characters in Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies. The book is set in India in 1838, just before the Opium Wars. The characters hail from a variety of social classes and cultures. Deeti, the first character we meet, lives in a village outside Ghazipur with her opium-addicted husband and their daughter. Zachary Reid, the mixed-race son of a Maryland freedwomen, has just arrived in India as a sailor on the former slave ship, the Ibis. He owes a great deal of his career success to Serang Ali, the head of the lascar crew that served on the Ibis. Paulette Lambert is a young French woman who has been raised in an unconventional manner by her botanist father and her wet nurse, who is the mother of Jodu, Paulette’s childhood playmate and best friend. Neel Rattan is an upper-caste Raja trying to juggle his debts, his mistress, the women she brings with her everywhere, and his wife and son. And there’s Baboo Nob Kissin, an accountant who eventually becomes convinced that one of the other characters is in fact Krishna in human guise.

So there are a lot of characters—many more than I’ve mentioned here–and each one has a story. They’re wonderful creations, these people, but I’ll confess that for the first half of the book I found it a struggle to get to know them. For one thing, there are so many of them, and most of them do not meet until halfway through the book. I couldn’t keep track of who was who for quite a while. (I eventually made a sticky note with character names and descriptions to put in the front of the book for quick reference.) This is a common problem with grand multicharacter epics, but it’s compounded here by the fact that the names and backgrounds are so far removed from my own. Not the book’s fault, but a barrier just the same.

The other challenge is with the language. Ghosh sprinkles the dialogue with unfamiliar nautical terms as well as words from the Indian dialects spoken by the various characters. Here’s a passage in which Mr Doughty, ship’s pilot, explains why Zachary needs to learn the lingo (or the zubben):

This was India, where it didn’t serve for a sahib to be taken for a clodpoll of a griffin: if he wasn’t fly to what was going on, it’d be all dickey with him, mighty jildee. This was no Baltimore—this was a jungle here, with biscobras in the grass and wanderoos in the trees. If he, Zachary, wasn’t to be diddled and taken for a flat, he would have to learn to gubbrow the natives with a word or two of the zubben.

Most of the time, I could get the gist of what was going on, but I was totally at sea at a few points. I think, however, that this was intentional, because the characters are often as lost as I was. Ghosh often plays up the linguistic differences when characters of different cultures are mixing, and the dialects become particularly noticable. It’s sometimes great fun, as in the passage above, but it did add to the difficulty.

Despite the struggle, there were enough terrific scenes to keep me interested in the early pages. Although there were perhaps too many characters to start with, they were almost all written as three-dimensional people. Even the characters who looked like they might just be stereotypes were given enough of an inner life to make them seem real. Plus, the writing was filled with wonderful detail. Here, for example, is what Deeti saw when she visited the mixing room at the opium factory:

The air inside was hot and fetid, like that of a closed kitchen, except that the smell was not of spices and oil, but of liquid opium, mixed with the dull stench of sweat—a reek so powerful that she had to pinch her nose to keep herself from gagging. No sooner had she steadied herself, than her eyes were met by a startling sight—a host of dark, legless torsos was circling around and around, like some enslaved tribe of demons. This vision—along with the overpowering fumes—made her groggy, and to keep herself from fainting she began to move slowly ahead. When her eyes had grown more accustomed to the gloom, she discovered the secret of those circling torsos: they were bare-bodied men, sunk waist-deep in tanks of opium, tramping round and round to soften the sludge. Their eyes were vacant, glazed, and yet somehow they managed to keep moving, as slow as ants in honey, tramping, treading. When they could move no more, they sat on the edges of the tanks, stirring the dark ooze only with their feet. These seated men had more the look of ghouls than any living thing she had ever seen: their eyes glowed red in the dark and they appeared completely naked, their loincloths—if indeed they had any—being so steeped in the drug as to be indistinguishable from their skin.

This kind of writing was enough to keep me going, but I didn’t really start to consistently enjoy the book until the halfway mark, when several of the characters end up on the Ibis as it set sail for Mauritius with a load of opium and indentured servants. As this point, the book went from being a collection of well-written scenes about interesting people to become a harrowing, but sometimes beautiful story of people I cared about but whose fate was uncertain. By the last 100 pages, I was in love.  Like Paulette, I was starting to see the differences between me and these amazing people as irrelevant:

Are not all appearances deceptive in the end? Whatever there is within us—whether good, or bad, or neither—its existence will continue uninterrupted, will it not, no matter what the drape of our clothes, or the colour of our skin? What if it is the world that is a draperie, Mr Reid, and we the exceptions to its lies?

Sea of Poppies is the first in a trilogy, and the ending felt conclusive, in that circumstances have changed and a chapter is clearly ending, but it’s also frustratingly open-ended, as one would expect in a continuing saga. I for one am eager to see what happens next.

See more reviews at Asylum, dovegreyreaderscribbles, kiss a cloud, Farm Lane Books, and Reviews by Lola.

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18 Responses to Sea of Poppies

  1. I had the opposite problem to you. I loved the first section, but got bored by it as it progressed. I just didn’t connect with the characters once they were at sea. I don’t think I’ll be reading the rest of the trilogy, but look forward to seeing your thoughts on it.

    • Teresa says:

      Jackie, I can definitely see how someone who loved the first part might not like the second half so well. The writing is beautiful throughout but if you don’t connect with the characters, it would certainly lose steam after a while.

  2. Steph says:

    “Most of the time, I could get the gist of what was going on, but I was totally at sea at a few points.”

    I couldn’t tell if you were intentionally making light of Gosh’s use of nautical lingo in your own appraisal here, but either way, I was amused! ;)

    I haven’t read this one in part because it’s a trilogy and so I’ve been waiting for all the books to be released before deciding whether I want to tackle it or not. Then again, your review seems to suggest that the book could be read as stand-alone if need be… is that true?

    • Teresa says:

      Steph: Ha! When I first started writing I did not intend the “at sea” comment as a joke, but then I noticed what I had done and got a chuckle out of it, so I left it in. Maybe my subconscious was clever?

      If I hadn’t known this book was part of a trilogy, I would have been very annoyed by the ending because there is n real conclusion, just an end to this phase. (It’s not unlike the ending of Fellowship of the Ring in its level of conclusiveness.) Plus, if there weren’t more story to come, there would have been way too much exposition in this book. I did enjoy reading it on its own, but it doesn’t feel entirely complete. Whether to read it now or wait would probably depend on how long you’re willing to wait for the loose ends to be tied up.

  3. diane says:

    I’m looking forward to reading this one in 2010. Great review!

  4. Aarti says:

    I tried Ghosh some years ago and couldn’t get into his writing style, really, so I never tried again. I didn’t know this one was the first in a trilogy! If I give it a go, I’ll wait until they’re all published- I’m stick in the midst of FAR too many series at the moment!

    • Teresa says:

      Aarti: I hear on not wanting to take on too many series. Most of the ones I’m following are either mostly published (Morland dynasty) or being published slowly enough that I can pretty much keep up (Mary Russell and now the Ibis trilogy).

      I probably won’t delve into Ghosh’s back catalog at this point. I’ll save that until after the trilogy is done.

  5. Kathleen says:

    Sounds like overall it was worth sticking with. These are the kinds of books I tend to reread just because I get so much more enjoyment out of them the second time around.

    • Teresa says:

      Kathleen: I give just about all my books away, but I’m holding onto this one because I do think it’ll make a great reread, perhaps for just before the sequel is released.

  6. Marie says:

    Great review, Teresa. You summed my feelings very nicely! I loved the cliffhanger ending and can’t wait for the sequels!

  7. litlove says:

    I’ve hesitated over this book for exactly the reasons you discuss in the early part of your review – the disorienting richness and strangeness of the writing. Now I agree, that can be a fabulous thing for some readers, but on occasions I’ve found it sort of tiring and I lose stamina. Definitely a book I would have to be in the right mood for – I thought your review was very fair and balanced!

    • Teresa says:

      litlove: The writing really was a struggle for me for a while (in much the same way Midnight’s Children was a struggle), but once I got into it, it really paid off (more so than with Midnight’s Children, which I never grew to love).

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  11. Pearl McElheran says:

    Too many facts; too many characters; too much jabberwocky, etc. etc! Am somewhat curious to know what happened to the characters but not curious enough to try to plow through vol. 2.

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