Sea of Poppies (Ghosh) - Book Reviews

Book Reviews
During the course of this novel, the first installment in his projected "Ibis Trilogy," Mr. Ghosh turns the ship into something robustly, bawdily and indelibly real…home to Mr. Ghosh's sparkling array of eccentrics, blowhards, runaway lovers and people seeking new leases on life.... Sea of Poppies works well as a free-standing novel. But it also lays the groundwork for Mr. Ghosh's larger project. By the time this book ends, the reader has been caught up in a plot of Dickensian intricacy, the Ibis readied for whatever its mission may be, and the characters firmly enveloped in new, self-created identities.
Janet Maslin - New York Times


One does not need the impressive bibliography of sources at the end to be struck by the wealth of period detail the author commands. His descriptions bring a lost world to life, from the evocatively imagined opium factory, the intricacies of women's costumes and the lovingly enumerated fare on the opulent dining tables of the era, to the richly detailed descriptions of the Ibis and its journey. At times, Sea of Poppies reads like a cross between an Indian Gone with the Wind and a Victorian novel of manners. And yet Ghosh has managed a sharp reversal of perspective. His ship, with the author's fine feel for nautical niceties, sails in Joseph Conrad territory, through waters since romanticized by the likes of James Clavell. But whereas those writers and so many others placed the white man at the center of their narratives, Ghosh relegates his British colonists to the margins of his story, giving pride of place to the neglected subjects of the imperial enterprise: colonialism's impoverished, and usually colored, victims…his novel is also a delight. I can't wait to see what happens to these laborers and seamen, the defrocked raja and the transgendered mystic in the next volume.
Shashi Tharoor - Washington Post


Rich and panoramic, Amitav Ghosh's latest novel—the first of a promised trilogy—sees this Indian author on masterly form.... Sea of Poppies is a sprawling adventure with a cast of hundreds and numerous intricate stories encompassing poverty and riches, despair and hope, and the long-fingered reach of the opium trade.... Lustrous.
The Economist


India in the 1830s is wonderfully evoked—the smells, rituals and squalor.... Coarseness and violence, cruelty and fatalism, are relieved with flashes of emotion and kindness. This is no anti-colonial rant or didactic tableau but the story of men and women of all races and castes, cooped up on a voyage across the 'Black Water' that strips them of dignity and ends in storm, neither in despair nor resolution. It is profoundly moving.
Michael Binyon - Times  (London)


Ghosh's best and most ambitious work yet is an adventure story set in nineteenth-century Calcutta against the backdrop of the Opium Wars. On the Ibis, a ship engaged in transporting opium across the Bay of Bengal, varied life stories converge. A fallen raja, a half-Chinese convict, a plucky American sailor, a widowed opium farmer, a transgendered religious visionary are all united by the "smoky paradise" of the opium seed. Ghosh writes with impeccable control, and with a vivid and sometimes surprising imagination: a woman's tooth protrudes "like a tilted gravestone"; an opium addict's writhing spasms are akin to "looking at a pack of rats squirming in a sack"; the body of a young man is "a smoking crater that had just risen from the ocean and was still waiting to be explored."
The New Yorker


(Starred review.) Diaspora, myth and a fascinating language mashup propel the Rubik's cube of plots in Ghosh's picaresque epic of the voyage of the Ibis, a ship transporting Indian girmitiyas (coolies) to Mauritius in 1838. The first two-thirds of the book chronicles how the crew and the human cargo come to the vessel, now owned by rising opium merchant Benjamin Burnham. Mulatto second mate Zachary Reid, a 20-year-old of Lord Jim–like innocence, is passing for white and doesn't realize his secret is known to the gomusta (overseer) of the coolies, Baboo Nob Kissin, an educated Falstaffian figure who believes Zachary is the key to realizing his lifelong mission. Among the human cargo, there are three fugitives in disguise, two on the run from a vengeful family and one hoping to escape from Benjamin. Also on board is a formerly high caste raj who was brought down by Benjamin and is now on his way to a penal colony. The cast is marvelous and the plot majestically serpentine, but the real hero is the English language, which has rarely felt so alive and vibrant.
Publishers Weekly


Deeti has a vision of the former slave ship long before she spies its sails billowing up the Ganges, intuiting that her fate will inexplicably be tied to this vessel. In fact, the Ibis represents a microcosm of the Middle East during the 19th century, carrying a crew of displaced pilgrims to resettlement in Mauritius, where their lives may no longer be circumscribed by caste, religion, or ancestry. Learning how these disparate characters—a Bengali widow, a French orphan, a deposed rajah, and an American freedman among them—come to be on the Ibis will require some fortitude from readers, who may be distracted by the author's fascination with word origins and liberal use of colloquial forms of speech. A prolific author, anthropologist, and past recipient of an ALA Notable Book Award, Ghosh (The Hungry Tide) offers history buffs a devastating and well-researched look at the business of opium manufacturing, along with the politics that led to the Opium Wars between China and Great Britain. Unfortunately, this first entry in a proposed trilogy is uneven, trying to combine historical fiction with a comedy of manners, a maritime adventure, and a treatise on class/gender discrimination and ending abruptly with no resolution for those who may not want to wait for the sequel. For larger public library collections.
Library Journal


A historical novel crammed almost to the bursting point with incidents and characters, but Ghosh (The Hungry Tide, 2005, etc.) deftly keeps everything under control. It's 1838, and Britain is set on maintaining the opium trade between India and China as a buttress of its economic, political and cultural power. Ghosh orchestrates his polyphonic saga with a composer's fine touch. He lays out multiple narrative lines, initially separate, that eventually conjoin on the Ibis, a schooner bound from Calcutta to China across the much-feared "Black Water." Neel, the sophisticated raja of Raskhali, is convicted of a trumped-up forgery charge. Kalua, a prodigiously strong member of the lower caste, rescues the higher-caste Deeti from ritual burning on the death of her egregious husband. Paulette, a feisty French orphan, stows away on the Ibis to escape the restricted life of a white woman in India. It also might have something to do with the attractions of Zachary Reid, the ship's mixed-race second mate from Baltimore. He's commanded by brutal first mate Jack Crowle, who has no sympathy for anyone of any color, and by Captain Chillingworth, who warns passengers and crew, "at sea there is another law, and...on this vessel I am its sole maker." Ghosh could be accused of using coincidence a bit too freely, but a more charitable view will judge the inevitability of these characters' intertwinings as karma—and part of the pleasure of reading the novel. The density of settings, from rural India to teeming Calcutta to the Sudder Opium Factory, is historically convincing, and the author pays close attention to variations in speech, from the clipped formality of the educated class to a patois ("the kubber is that his cuzzanah is running out") that definitely requires the glossary that Ghosh provides. Planned as the first of a trilogy, this astonishing, mesmerizing launch will be hard to top.
Kirkus Reviews

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