When we last left the characters in Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, at the end of the marvelous Sea of Poppies, they were floating off to different fates at the brink of the Opium Wars. It was impossible to know whether these people we had come to care for, and whose lives had been so strangely knit together by opium, by destiny, and by the sea, would ever see each other again. At the opening of River of Smoke, Ghosh leaves us partly reassured, with the establishment of a new family shrine in a new, strange place, and partly unsettled. Where is Zachary? Where is Kalua? Who are all these new people? But Ghosh’s wonderful storytelling draws us in, and the new places (especially Canton) and the new characters are just as touching, thrilling, and fascinating as any that breathed through the first book. Their fates, and the opium that drives them, are what animate River of Smoke.
Jenny: One reason I loved Sea of Poppies, and loved River of Smoke as well, was that even with an absolutely Dickensian cast of characters, and even with a completely unfamiliar setting and language (well, languages), I never lost track of anyone or anything. Ghosh is an absolute master of making characters and voices distinctive. I could never in a thousand years mistake Robin Chinnery for Bahram Modi for Neel Rattan. I loved the writing.
Teresa: I struggled more with the large cast than you did, but it often takes me a while to get characters straight in my head when there are lots of them. (Perhaps that’s why I’ve never been a huge Dickens fan.) But once I got past the adjustment period, I came to love these characters. Bahram Modi’s story was especially gripping, and my heart was in my throat as it started to wrap up. The only thing I didn’t like is that I was desperate to know what happened to Zachary and Kalua—and despite the hints at their fate, I still am!
Jenny: I am, too, but I think over these two books, I’ve grown to trust Ghosh. Whether he’s employing a light touch (and he can be very, very funny) or a darker tone (and he can be heartbreaking), he doesn’t lose sight of his characters. We won’t, either.
One of the things I’ve loved about these book is getting a far more complex view of the events leading up to the Opium Wars. Ghosh doesn’t limit himself to one class, one race, language, country, religion, or point of view. Even within one group — say, the merchant class– it’s not monolithic: we have those who worship at the shrine of Free Trade, those who think commerce need not damage the people of the country, and those who have no real principles at all, but just want to make money for themselves and their families. I loved the real, human variety. It all felt so true to life. One thing I did wish for in this book was more women. We had precious little of Paulette and virtually no other women at all — though maybe that was the fault of the setting: Fanqui-town, a part of Canton where no women are supposed to be.
Teresa: Oh yes, I trust that we will get to hear those stories. There were enough references to them for me to be convinced that Ghosh has their fate worked out and intends to share it.
I know nothing at all about the Opium Wars, and like any good piece of historical fiction River of Smoke made me want to fill in that gap. Especially striking to me was how clearly this book spoke to the issues of our time, another trait of good historical fiction. When the merchants were debating who stood to lose the most if the merchants handed over their opium, I could hear our own Congress!
“But what of the ruination and destitution of those who have invested their savings in our shipments? What of their fall in station and society, leading perhaps to debtor’s prison, to workhouse alms and probably death by starvation?”
“But surely, Mr Slade,” interjected Mr King, “you are not suggesting that your investors are people of meagre means, who are in danger of being packed off to debtor’s prison? Why would a man who is on the brink of poverty sink his last few pennies into a speculation in a commodity such as opium? In my experience, no one invests in such ventures unless they have capital to spare—they are no more likely to be forced into the workhouse than you or I. This indeed the cruellest aspect of this trade—that a few rich men, in order to get richer, are willing to sacrifice millions of lives.”
Slade threw up his hands, “It is exactly as I suspected: Mr King’s heart bleeds for his Celestial friends, but he is utterly indifferent to the sufferings of his fellow merchants and their investors…”
Mr King is my new hero.
Jenny: I loved him, too! I think my favorite new character was Bahram Modi. His story, and the way it was linked with Neel’s and with Ah Fatt’s, was touching, exciting, and in the end very moving, and it showed so much of the way countries and characters were interlinked. And of course, Ghosh doesn’t just do people well, he has an astonishing sense of place. I have actually been to Canton (now Guangdong) and have seen places like Shamian Island. Although of course it could not be more completely different today, it was really exciting to read the descriptions of the Thirteen Hongs, Fanqui-Town, the crowded river-boats, and all the huge, overflowing merchant life that made it possible.
Teresa: You’re so right about the descriptions. Ghosh’s prose is so evocative that I felt I was there. This was a wonderful book, and I’m excited to see what happens next!