Sea of Poppies

Some years ago, I read Barry Unsworth’s mighty but epically-depressing masterpiece Sacred Hunger, which dealt with the way nations bowed to the god of the cotton trade and offered slaves on its shrine. In one way, Amitav Ghosh’s novel Sea of Poppies reminded me of Sacred Hunger: here, too, nations revolve around the commerce of the holy poppy and all the nostrums (and all the money) it produces, and those nations are ruthless, even after the abolition of the slave trade, in order to keep that poppy-juice flowing. But let me reassure you that the experience of reading Sea of Poppies is utterly different from Unsworth’s book: while it’s sometimes harrowing, it’s also beautiful, funny, tender, and flecked with light.

As Teresa said in her excellent review, this book has a very large cast of characters, set in India in 1838. The characters are drawn from all walks of life, all different social classes, all races and religions and castes and countries of origin. Each of them is beautifully drawn, each has a rich inner life, each has secrets, and it slowly begins to become clear that they are all mysteriously linked by four things: opium, fortune, race, and destination, as they all eventually come aboard the sailing ship Ibis, bound for Mauritius.

Opium saturates this book. From the first pages, when Deeti, an Indian woman walking through her fields of white-blossoming poppy, to the sight of Ah Fatt, an afeemkhor (addict) in the final stages of withdrawal, it is opium that drives the plot: opium floats the ships, puts food on the table, soothes pain, robs children, and foments trouble.

It’s opium, too, directly or indirectly, that causes most of the changes of fortune that affect the characters. Zachary Reid is a mulatto sailor who can pass for white, and his change of dress catapults him into the rank of gentleman. The death of Deeti’s husband puts her in grave danger, and she abandons family, land, and caste to escape. Paulette Lambert, a young Frenchwoman in a different kind of danger, disguises herself to make her own escape. Raja Neel Rattan Halder loses everything he holds dear, including his sense of himself, and finds something that may turn out to be still more precious. The stories continue, but they are all linked by this sense of fortune’s wheel (the story felt very medieval in this way: peasant to king, king to peasant.) You can see, perhaps, too, that the notion of race and caste is crucial to these story lines. Many of the characters are mixed-race, and many speak several languages. This wild mixture of tongues and lineage might divide them, but it doesn’t:

But aren’t you afraid, she said, of losing caste? Of crossing the Black Water, and being on a ship with so many sorts of people?

Not at all, the girl replied, in a tone of unalloyed certainty. On a boat of pilgrims, no one can lose caste and everyone is the same: it’s like taking a boat to the temple of Jagannath, in Puri. From now on, and forever afterwards, we will all be ship-siblings — jahazbhais and jahazbahens — to each other. There’ll be no differences between us.

Perhaps. Perhaps the connections, forged by the ship, by opium, by fortune’s wheel, will be stronger than the undeniable divisions made by race, by language, by class and need. But Ghosh’s lovely book, which ends on a breathless note, is the first of a trilogy, and I will have to read River of Smoke to find out.

I enjoyed this book tremendously. It’s beautifully written, full of the wild energy that comes from the meeting of many peoples and languages and cultures, and often very funny. I have to thank Teresa for pushing this book my way. She always knows just what I will like, and an Indian seagoing language opium adventure was just that.

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19 Responses to Sea of Poppies

  1. Jenny says:

    Yay! I’m glad you liked this too! Are you going to read the sequel? Lucky you that you have read Sea of Poppies and do not have to wait for River of Smoke. I had to wait INFINITY YEARS. At least that is what it felt like. I can’t remember what that translated into in real life time.

    • Jenny says:

      Of course I’m going to read the sequel! I couldn’t just leave them all there! And yes, I’m glad it’s coming out now (though I’ll have to wait for the third one.) I like reading series that are already finished, which I usually do.

  2. Teresa says:

    I’m about halfway through the audio version now, and it is wonderful. In fact, I just got to the part with your second quote this morning! I’m loving the characters even more the second time around, and I’ve already put myself on the holds list at the library for River of Smoke.

    • Jenny says:

      I think the language might be a little less confusing on a second read — and by the way, it is far more confusing in this book than in any of the O’Brian books, so you have your revenge! But I just enjoyed it for itself. I’m looking forward to River of Smoke.

  3. Alex says:

    I read a raving review by Eva over at A Strip Armchair some time ago and since then it’s been on the wish-list. I want to own it, but have my eye on a particular edition that has gone out of print meanwhile (the one with the Japanese-style waves in the cover).

    • Jenny says:

      That’s a beautiful edition, though I also like the poppy-red one I read, with the blue poppies on it. It seemed appropriate.

  4. Steph says:

    “She always knows just what I will like, and an Indian seagoing language opium adventure was just that.”

    Well, really, who wouldn’t enjoy an Indian seagoing language opium adventure?!? ;) Seriously though, I’ve heard tons of good things about this, and the only thing holding me back is that I know it’s going to be part of a trilogy and I worry that I’ll devour the first book and then be bereft that I have no others to read! I might wait until Gosh has finished all three books before I start on the first one…

    • Jenny says:

      I know, right? Well, I usually do read series after they are finished (that’s the benefit of mostly being behind the publishing curve) but this one caught me by surprise. It’s all Teresa’s fault!

  5. I remember being particularly impressed by the melding of different languages and creoles/pidgins in this book, and the way that bled into the narrative style. It’s a good one! My plan is to wait for all three books, then revisit this one before moving on to #’s 2 and 3. :-)

    • Jenny says:

      I think what impressed me most about that was the feeling that this is what India really is — language and race all blended, a river of peoples all coming together for different reasons, finding a way to live together in various degrees of harmony and disharmony. It was fascinating.

  6. Tony says:

    This is definitely one I’ve been meaning to read for a while – sadly, it’s going to have to wait for all the challenges and reading months and ARCs to get out of the way first…

    • Jenny says:

      You might never get to it at that rate! There will always be more challenges, more reading months, more ARCs… Nice to put great books towards the top once in a while. :)

  7. This book is so atmospheric and I am looking forward to reading the sequel.

    • Jenny says:

      It was atmospheric. I think I liked the language and the setting best, and the characterization was pretty good, too.

  8. Amy says:

    I recently finished reading Sea of Poppies and, although at times I struggled a bit, I always loved Ghosh’s writing and found his characters intriguing. By the time everyone boarded and set sail on the Ibis I was loving this book. Not many books have humor, pathos, degradation, joy, love, spirituality and more to the extent and degree this book does. By the time I finished it, I understood the rave reviews I’ve read about it.
    I thoroughly enjoyed your review! You do a great job of putting into a few paragraphs what’s so wonderful about this book and why it’s worth reading!

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you! I agree that some of the language was downright incomprehensible, but it didn’t bother me. The humor and power of the writing kept me reading!

  9. Christy says:

    For some reason I was sure that this was a long-time resident on my to-read list, but it was not. Corrected! It sounds wonderful from your review.

  10. Pingback: South Asian Review Database - “G” - S Krishna's Books

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