Friday, May 21, 2010

Sea of Poppies Book Review

If you’re anything like me, you want to go to sleep to a story.  Described as “The first in an epic trilogy,” Amitav Ghosh’s novel Sea of Poppies is the perfect book to keep on your bedside table.  Complex in the political, moral, and interpersonal questions it evokes, Sea of Poppies is also an adventure that keeps you coming back for more, replete with descriptions of far-off lands unfamiliar to most of us.  While not the quickest of reads (coming in at 496 pages, not including the “Chrestomathy”), it is addictive.  Even better, it’s a trilogy and only the first book is out, so it will keep you entertained for years to come.

At the core of the novel is a boat, the Ibis, a slave-ship refitted to export opium.  Surrounding this boat are many characters – some relatively minor, like the ship’s new owner, and others whose stories are constantly returned to.  It quickly becomes apparent that it is the destiny of these elements – the major characters and the ship – to come together.  There are of course, as with any epic, speed bumps along the way and, more importantly, exploration of a culture that is not so different from our own.

Free trade is the motivating force of the newly formed society that Ghosh depicts, consisting of all castes of Indians, Muslims, Chinese, and whites.   In the words of Burnham, the owner of the Ibis, “Free Trade is a right conferred on Man by God” (112) and as such, is used as an excuse for many crimes: wars, enslavement, the takeover of nations...  Free trade is clearly represented by Ghosh as less than ideal, a force that breaks apart nations and families.  This destructive force is understood in the departure of the Ibis from the shore of the Ganges, which takes many of its passengers away from all they have ever known to a life of enslavement to a cause which is not their own.  For a thought-provoking and critical look at free trade, check out Tasha the Voracious Vegan's recent post, A Manmade Disaster.

The passengers come from many different backgrounds: Indian, English, French, Muslim, American, Chinese, black, white, and various mixtures of those mentioned.  The language of the novel is just as varied; while it is written in English, there is a fair amount of Hindu and sailor slang, as well as a smattering of French.  Don’t let that scare you off though; the slang is understandable in context, the Hindu is nearly always translated, and the French is rarely significant (like tout de suite… spelled wrong in the novel for some crazy reason).  Out of this mélange emerges a group of main characters that seem (to me at least) to all have one thing in common: they are good.  That’s not to suggest that they are not flawed – they violate taboos, are cocky, lose their tempers, and boss others around – but they all lack the drives to inflict pain, improve one’s own lot at the expense of others, and total racial intolerance that many of the lesser, “bad” characters experience.

Perhaps what they share is not their goodness, but the fact of their having suffered.  The core characters have all suffered loss, pain, and racial and social intolerance.  Perhaps this is what gives them their capacity for goodness.  What is truly impressive is Ghosh’s ability to represent these varied injustices without compromising the individuality of his characters.  For example, the two women of the core group of characters are very strong, much stronger than other women in the novel, yet they suffer astonishingly.  They are violated in body and mind, and treated as inhuman.  The man are also attacked, largely for the uncontrollable details of their birth – the single black grandparent, the misfortune of low caste, the bankruptcy of their father.  And despite all the varieties of suffering extant in his novel, all of which he could not possibly have experienced first-hand, Ghosh empathizes with all of these people and, by extension, so does the reader.

Don’t get me wrong.  Despite all this talk of suffering, the novel is not a downer.  There is inspiration to be found in the suffering and moments of joy and light-heartedness that are as valuable as the knowledge of pain.  Sea of Poppies is, at its core, a journey, complex and emotional, but a journey worth taking.

Amitav Ghosh, the author of Sea of Poppies, splits his time between India and New York.  This life split between two cultures probably contributes to his incredible empathy, though his ability to see and represent so many perspectives seems to go beyond merely owning two homes.

Advice to the reader: pay attention to the names of characters.  They are often unfamiliar and difficult to remember and there are a lot of them.

Stay tuned for a restaurant review and another book review, among other treats I have planned!

1 comment:

  1. Must be an enjoyable read Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.