It’s just like Gilligan’s Island, but the passengers are indentured servants and the tour is longer than three hours.
Imagine if Eliza Bennett went to India with her parents and got orphaned there.
This is 12 Years a Slave meets Eat, Pray, Love.
I’m lying, and rather despicably. It’s more like one of the darker Dickens novels meets Moby Dick by way of Heart of Darkness, and even that doesn’t really capture the tone.
This isn’t the kind of book one normally recommends to book
groups. But I’m going to make the case anyway.
Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (2008) is the kind of book you wish you could find a clever way to sell to readers who will be intimidated by the real description. This is an epic novel set in India and on the Indian Ocean just before the First Opium War between England and China. It’s a challenging novel because it involves a multitude of characters; because Ghosh employs several dictionaries’ worth of sea talk, Indian terms, and Pidgin slang; and because the ugly trifecta of the opium trade, colonialism, and bigotry take their tolls on every character. At 530 page and as the first of a trilogy, this isn’t the kind of book one normally recommends to book groups. But I’m going to make the case anyway.
You’ve got to be able to handle a big character list to love this book. It features Zachary Reid, a mulatto sailor from Baltimore who is helped to mate status by a mysterious sailor named Serang Ali. He falls for Paulette Lambert, a spirited young woman whose French botanist father came to India and left her orphaned. There’s Neel Rattan Halder, a lower raja whose family fortune is lost when China bans the opium trade, and who is then dubiously convicted of forgery. Deeti is a young woman whose husband works at the opium factory and is addicted to the goods. Because he drugged her on their wedding night, she isn’t even sure if her child was his. He dies early in the novel, and she is saved, barely, from his funeral pyre. Kalua is a gigantic and often silent ox-cart driver from a lower caste.
All of these characters and more end up on the Ibis, a ship sometime used for the opium trade, sometimes for slavery, and on this voyage to carry indentured servants to Mauritius. The first mate, Crowley, is a dangerous man, the captain is mysteriously unwell, and both the conditions of the sea and of life on the ship make the journey perilous for the many passengers who have never even left home villages before.
That Ghosh handles this incredible mix of characters, the rich melange of their many languages and dialects, and the many fine differences in status that are so important to his story is impressive. That he does this gracefully is nothing short of a miracle. Some readers may disagree, but I found this neither the most difficult book in the world to follow, nor a work, despite its many dark story lines, without redeeming moments of nobility, beauty, humor, and heroism. If you enjoy audiobooks, try the reading by Phil Gigante, who does stellar work in slipping between genders, races, and argots and brings all the emotion through. For those sticking to print, there’s a glossary included.
Sea of Poppies is just the first of a trilogy that illustrates the full scope of the Opium War, but the ending has its satisfactions. River of Smoke (2010) is next, and Flood of Fire is due later this year.