Sea of Poppies: A Novel (The Ibis Trilogy)

by Amitav Ghosh

Hardcover, 2008

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Publication

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2008), Edition: First Edition, 528 pages

Description

Preparing to fight China's nineteenth-century Opium Wars, a motley assortment of sailors and passengers, including a bankrupt rajah, a widowed tribeswoman, and a free-spirited French orphan, comes to experience family-like ties that eventually span continents, races, and generations.

User reviews

LibraryThing member DeltaQueen50
The first in a planned trilogy, Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh is an enthralling story of people caught up in life’s ever changing tide. Starting in India during the 1830’s at the height of the opium trade, we are introduced to character after character, each one unique and engaging. From courageous Deeti who has a core of inner strength that is astounding, to the comically strange Baboo Nob Kissin, who is slowly losing grip on reality while immersing himself in his wondrous new personality. So many characters, from the very good to the very bad.

The story moves ever forward with the destiny of these characters to meet and mingle. In one way or another they all find themselves aboard the Ibis, a schooner that was originally built as a slaver, but now being used in the opium trade. As officers, crew, coolies and prisoners they set out on a voyage that will change all their lives.

Beautifully written, the author uses language as an art to paint a colourful backdrop to this story. He vividly depicts the diverse, rich country of India as well as the stark beauty of an ocean voyage. By the use of various dialects he is able to show the variety of class differences that existed in British Empire. Obviously a tremendous amount of research was done, but the author is able to breathe such life into this story that the reader is hardly aware of the learning aspect. Oh, how I wish all historical fiction was like this! Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member labfs39
Whatever the case, he saw now that it was a rare, difficult and improbable thing for two people from worlds apart to find themselves linked by a tie of pure sympathy, a feeling that owed nothing to the rules and expectations of others. He understood also that when such a bond comes into being, its truths and falsehoods, its obligations and privileges, exist only for the people who are linked by it, and then in such a way that only they can judge the honour and dishonour of how they conduct themselves in relation to each other.

Sea of Poppies is a novel about relationships that cross boundaries, such as those of race, caste, class, religion, or crossing the line and "going native". The figurative and literary vehicle that facilitates many of these crossings is the Ibis. People of all persuasions are drawn to journey on the Ibis, and at first they seem as unlikely shipmates as could be. But through the course of the book, the first in a trilogy, relationships develop that transcend the social boundaries, conventions, and even laws that separate them. Individuals themselves also change in ways that cross boundaries: a man thought to be Black in America, becomes a white sahib in India; another person undergoes a spiritual transformation that alters his physical body to resemble that of a woman.

The book is characterized by motion and by change. The first character we are introduced to, Deeti, profoundly alters her caste and tribe, as well as her status as a wife and mother, in her journey to the Ibis. Another, Zachary, is a master at creating relationships regardless of his or others' social and racial status. It's almost as though he doesn't see the boundaries which are so apparent to everyone else. As the characters flow together toward the Ibis and out to sea, those who are incapable of change are left behind in some manner.

All this movement and change is also reflected in the setting. India is under British rule, and their entire economy and way of life has been changed by the British desire to trade in opium. Fields of foodstuffs are forcibly converted to growing opium. Villagers starve, and the lucky ones become dependent on the British either by growing and selling opium for them or by working as near slaves in the opium processing plants. Addiction becomes rampant among the Indian workers. The British even manipulate the caste system for their own ends. Things are changing for the British as well. The demand for opium in China is falling, due to recent opium bans by the Chinese, causing a growing financial crisis for the business owners and for the British crown. Inexorably the British move toward a war with China.

I found this book fascinating on so many levels. The author thoroughly researched the hybrid languages of the time and skillfully allows them to wash over the reader without causing the reader to become bogged down. I listened to a portion of the book on audio and enjoyed hearing the accents and cadences, but preferred reading it so that I could savor and reread, which increased my reading enjoyment. I did not use the chrestomathy, purportedly created by one of the characters, at the end of the book as a glossary, although I did read most of it for its own sake. When I unexpectedly reached the end of the book (the chrestomathy takes up the last forty plus pages), I wanted to immediately begin reading [River of Smoke], the second in the trilogy. I am invested in the characters, intrigued by the story, and left wanting more. Amitav Ghosh is an author whose books are now destined for my must-read list.… (more)
LibraryThing member brenzi
“The vision of a tall-masted ship, at sail on the ocean, came to Deeti on an otherwise ordinary day, but she knew instantly that the apparition was a sign of destiny, for she had never seen such a vessel before, not even in a dream: how could she have, living as she did in Northern Bihar, four hundred miles from the coast? Her village was so far inland that the sea seemed as distant as the netherworld: it was the chasm of darkness where the holy Ganga disappeared into the Kala-Pani, ‘the Black Water.’”

So begins the rip-snortin tale of high seas adventure aboard the Ibis in 1838, as told by Amitav Ghosh in Sea of Poppies, a novel that landed on the Booker shortlist in 2008. Many people, including me, believe it should have won the prize that year, that the Booker judges got it wrong (again) and this first book of a planned trilogy should have taken the gold, for what’s not to love here: adventure, drama, mystery, crime, romance, action and violence. What makes this book stand out from other books that might fall into the action/adventure genre is the writing. Ghosh’s writing sets a standard that few authors can hope to match. His prose beautifully sings throughout the narrative and after almost 500 pages he leaves you clambering for more. I’m ready for the next installment of the trilogy. Please he’s had two years. Isn’t it ready yet? I can’t wait!

The deftly drawn characters seem so real that you’ll swear you actually know and have talked to them. Deeti, one of the strongest female characters in recent memory (mine), takes center stage from page one. Abused, abandoned and on her own, she gives up everything in order to survive and, once on the ship, the other women look to her for guidance. Her determination and grit allow her to overcome her dire circumstances. Before the ship sets sail, when she and the others realize what is before them, the author gives us this:

“The knowledge that this was the last they would see of their homeland, created an atmosphere of truculence and uncertainty, in which no provocation seemed too slight for a quarrel. Once fights broke out, they escalated at a pace that was bewildering to everyone, including the participants; in their villages they would have had relatives, friends and neighbors to step between them, but here there were no elders to settle disputes, and no tribes of kinfolk to hold a man back from going for another’s throat.”

On the male side Ghosh has created an upstanding character torn between what he knows is right and trying to fit in among a group of despicable sea faring cutthroats. Zachary is among only three Americans on board and is desperately trying to keep a secret that, if revealed, would cost him his position as first mate.

And then you have the two key players in the narrative, who have neither head nor heart: opium, which plays an important role in the story. It’s the main source of income, in one way or another, for most of those on board and Ghosh adroitly draws a portrait depicting its ability to also destroy lives; and the ship, the Ibis, which is the real star of the show. It’s the entity that draws everyone together, and over the course of the trilogy, I believe, it will be both a curse and a source of comfort. Very highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member writestuff
Deeti, an Indian woman who grows poppies, has a vision of a ship – an odd vision because she lives 400 miles from the sea and has never seen a boat such as this…but her vision is a premonition and the ship has a name: Ibis. Thus begins Amitav Ghosh’s sprawling, historical saga Sea of Poppies. What follows is a story with a vast cast of characters whose paths ultimately cross enroute to the island of Mauritius aboard the Ibis – a former slave ship manned by a motley crew including an opium addicted captain, a freed American slave, and a foul-mouthed first mate with a penchant for cruelty. The voyagers include Paulette (a French woman with a sense of adventure who is fleeing an unacceptable situation in India), and Neel (a man who has been convicted of a crime he did not commit). But it is the Indian indentured workers who take center stage in a novel about caste, freedom, and human connection. And it is Deeti who becomes the central figure – a strong woman who marries beneath her caste and is respected by the other women aboard the ship.

The novel is beautifully imagined and captures the hopelessness of the opium factory workers, the daily lives of the villagers, the violence of ship law, and the diversity of an India in the mid-nineteenth century. Ghosh’s use of language in the novel is brilliant. Filled with strange words, pidgin English, and unusual sentence structure – the book at first seems unwieldy. But Ghosh succeeds where other less talented authors might not. The language, used with appropriate context, becomes almost like a musical score in a movie. Ghosh’s use of language demonstrates the way language can unite or divide people, and confuse or clarify situations. It is a powerful technique that works.

Historically, Sea of Poppies is set just prior to the Opium Wars and revolves around the British involvement in India and their trade practices exporting opium from India to China. Ghosh reveals the damage done by British colonial rule and the devastation wreaked upon the Indian economy, as well as society at large. Although apparently Ghosh’s creative inspiration was the indentured people of India, he says in an interview: “[...] once I started researching into it, it was kind of inescapable – all the roads led back to opium. The indentured emigration [out of India] really started in the 1830s and that was [around the time of] the peak of the opium traffic. That decade culminated in the opium wars against China.”

Ghosh is skilled at creating character…and in Sea of Poppies the characters are memorable and complex.

Although filled with adventure and interesting plot twists, Sea of Poppies is also about what makes us human in the face of crisis. One particularly memorable part of the novel to me was when Neel loses his caste and is convicted of the crime of forgery. Thrown into jail, he is forced to share a cell with an Asian named Ah Fatt who is hopelessly addicted to opium and lies in his own waste. For Neel, a man of stature who is fastidously clean, the situation is almost unbearable. And then he makes a self-discovery about what it means to care for another human being. It was moments like these in the story which elevated it above the typical historical novel.

Some readers have found the ending of Sea of Poppies to be abrupt and unresolved. I would agree. However, this book is the first in a planned trilogy which may explain the ending. At any rate, Sea of Poppies completely enthralled me and I am looking forward to the next two books.

Readers who love world and historical literature, and who enjoy richly textured sagas will love Sea of Poppies.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member PensiveCat
Sea of Poppies has a vibrant cast of characters, placed in India and the Indian Ocean during the time preceding the Opium Wars. The main character it seems is the ship, the Ibis, where almost everyone ends up by the end of the novel. Then there's a mulatto son of an American slave woman who comes up in the world a bit, a Raj who falls down in the world quite a lot, a wife of an opium addict, a French orphan, and perhaps some pirates.

I was able to keep track of the cast without getting overwhelmed - it was slightly more difficult to understand the local words peppered throughout the dialogue and description. Although there is a glossary in the back of the book, at times I had to ask my (fortunately) Hindi-speaking sisters for an explanation after a line or two threw me. Still, it was infinitely less annoying than say, Wuthering Heights, where certain choppy lines made me want to hurl the novel off a cliff.

Otherwise, it's certainly a page-turner, though without giving anything away, the ending was abrupt. It left me wanting to know how things would turn out for some of the sea travellers. Perhaps the author wanted us to use our imagination along with his hints interspersed throughout the story.

Certainly this is one I'd recommend for anyone interested in historical novels, especially those centered around India in British colonial times.
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LibraryThing member Crazymamie
"How had it happened that when choosing the men and women who were to be torn from this subjugated plain, the hand of destiny had strayed so far inland, away from the busy coastlines, to alight on the people who were, of all, the most stubbornly rooted in the silt of the Ganga, in a soil that had to be sown with suffering to yield its crop of story and song? It was as if fate had thrust its fist through the living flesh of the land in order to tear away a piece of its stricken heart."

This book is the beginning of what promises to be a sweeping saga. It follows multiple storylines, introduces a host of characters whose lives will eventually intertwine, and is set against the beautiful backdrop of colonial India. On top of all that, it is beautifully written. Divided into the three parts, the first part of the book concerns itself with setting up the backstories of the main characters. This was the slowest part for me because there is a lot to learn and a lot to remember in order to set the stage for the rest of the book. The second part of the book advances the storylines in preparation for bringing the main characters together in the third and final part of the book - the sea voyage aboard the Ibis:

"It was not that she was especially sleek or rakish in appearance: neither lean, nor flush-decked like the clippers for which Baltimore was famous. She had a short quarter-deck, a risen fo'c's'le, with a fo'c's'le-deck between the bows, and a deckhouse amidships, that served as a galley and cabin for the bos'ns and stewards. With her cluttered main deck and her broad beam, the Ibis was sometimes taken for a schooner-rigged barque by old sailors: whether there was any truth truth to this Zachary did not know, but he never thought of her as anything other than the topsail schooner that she was when he first signed on to her crew. To his eye there was something unusually graceful about the Ibis's yacht-like rigging, with her sails aligned along her length rather than across the line of her hull. He could see why, with her main- and headsails standing fair, she might put someone in mind of a white-winged bird in flight: other tall-masted ships, with their stacked loads of square canvas, seemed almost ungainly in comparison."

This book is well worth the time that it takes to assemble and discern the stories of its main characters. The third part of the book is much too short; the sea voyage was an old fashioned adventure filled with intrigue that passed much too quickly - I wanted more. I only had two gripes with this book, both of which are small and inconsequential in comparison to what the book has to offer its readers. The first is that this book contains a glossary which is more frustrating than illuminating. My advice is simply to ignore the glossary. There are passages in this book where you will feel like you are reading some obscure language that makes no sense, but if you keep reading, you will find that somehow, magically, you can discern the context of the words if not the individual meanings. This is more than sufficient to enjoy the book, as these passages do not make up the majority of the book. My second gripe is that this book cannot stand on its own. I know that it is part of an intended trilogy, and that it is an epic which means that this book is merely the first leg of the journey. However, that being said, I would have liked the ending to have less abruptness. The story felt SO unfinished, as if it had ended mid-sentence. I prefer a book that you feel could stand on its own even if it is part of a series. The beautiful writing and the well developed plot and characters more than make up for this, so by all means, do not hesitate to dive into this story, after all, the second book is already available, and so you can begin immediately, if you choose, on the second leg of the journey.

**Baboo Nob Kissin is one of the more colorful characters in the book, and one of my personal favorites. Here is a quote that tickled me, and that I intend to work into my daily dialogue with the host of teenagers that occupy our house (i.e. my children):

"... and on this point no concession can be made. Unreasonable demands must be strenuously opposed."
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LibraryThing member GCPLreader
Sea of Poppies is a fantastic page-turner. Set in India in the 1830's, this novel tells the story of a disparate group that board the Ibis as it sets sail for the island of Mauritius to deliver Coolies-indentured servants. Under British colonization, opium, sadly, influences the lives of many-- from the lower caste farmers to addicts to merchants and sailors, and leads ultimately to trade disputes and war between the British Empire and China. Never has the English language (with its Hindi influence) been more fun to read. Do not be put off by the difficult and unusual slang of the sailors (it appears early on but not frequently throughout the book). Their strange argot reminds me of the unique language of A Clockwork Orange--you won't always understand what they're saying, but it is bizarre and colorful(often naughty) and is easily understood within the author's capable context. This is the 1st of a proposed trilogy. A love story of mismatched castes, a Raja brought low, a "black" American first shipmate, a French orphan, even a man channeling a mystic woman, and many others- all of whom I've come to care deeply about-- I can't wait to read the next installments from the amazingly talented Amitav Ghosh.… (more)
LibraryThing member Gypsy_Boy
I find this a somewhat difficult book to review. I am a fan of Ghosh's writing and, indeed, own almost all of his works. I find him a wise and thoughtful writer, one whose intelligence comes through in every line.

But I'm not a particular fan of this book. Although intelligent and well-plotted, I found his fascination with the nautical jargon of the period astonishingly overdone and intrusive. There is no useful glossary to speak of (the "glossary" at the end is not, in fact, a true glossary but another fiction employed by Ghosh to give an insight into one character and the times) and context is not always a reliable guide to meaning. Far too many sentences were simply incomprehensible. While that didn't impede plot development (or, for the most part, character development), it went from a small impediment to an annoying, intrusive element that was present far too often. It is one thing to use such a device to add an element of verisimilitude; it is quite another to use it, as I find Ghosh does, to showcase his learning. It went beyond pedantic.

Still, his research, in general, sat lightly and offered some fascinating insights into a place and a society now largely lost.
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LibraryThing member ChelleBearss
Set on the eve of the opium wars the story revolves around a former slave ship The Ibis and it's motley cast of characters that are traveling to Mauritius; coolies, convicts, and stowaways and the ship's crew. With many different lives involved the novel is long in the setting up the background of their stories and each person's reasons for ending up on the ship and their involvement in the opium trade and how it is changing their lives.

This has a very complex plot and with so many characters it is hard to summarize but it was quite an enchanting read and I can see why there has been so much hype on LT about this one and the second in the trilogy [River of Smoke]. I plan on continuing with the trilogy right away. I just hope Ghosh has started writing the third!
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LibraryThing member sturlington
Sea of Poppies is a magnificently sprawling book — the first in a trilogy, in fact — set in a magnificently sprawling place and time: India in the 1830s, at the height of British colonialism. The cast of characters is large, but you get to know each one very well as the novel switches from one point of view to another. While the story starts with all the characters dispersed, they are gradually brought together by the intertwined strands of fate that direct their lives. And each character has a secret to hide; each one is in some way living as someone they are not. So the themes of deception and difference are established. By the cliffhanger ending, all of the characters are onboard a former slave ship heading across the “Black Water” to Mauritius — literally heading out into the unknown.

What I loved most about this novel is the use of language. The characters speak a wide variety of languages — Hindi, Bengali, French, English, shipboard pidgin, to name a few — and the text is liberally sprinkled with foreign words and phrases. (The careful reader will notice that quotation marks are omitted whenever the characters speak a language other than English, a distinction that is important for the plot.) This may be off-putting at first, but the trick is to relax and let meaning flow from context, rather than trying to understand each word. Gradually, the rhythm of the writing will overcome and enchant you.

Ghosh particularly delights in playing with puns and misunderstandings of spoken language in a way that reminds me of Shakespeare. Some of the funniest scenes in the book occur when the misunderstandings lead characters into suggestive dialogues filled with double entendres. Yes, Sea of Poppies is often funny, but it is also suspenseful, epic and evocative of a time and place that may have never actually existed as depicted here but is nonetheless wonderfully realized.
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LibraryThing member dchaikin
Apparently this is the first book of a trilogy. I wasn't aware of this while I reading it or while writing the review below. The review was written assuming this book was the full story.

I’m incapable of summarizing this book. There is too much here. Yes, this is about the horrors of opium and poppy growing in India. Yes this is a book on India – specifically 19th century British dominated India at the brink of the 1st Chinese-English Opium War. It’s also a book about language – specifically the Calcutta/Indian/Indian Ocean warping of the English language. Instead of a glossary, the back of the book has a “Chrestomathy”. This is apparently a list of words which has, in place of the definition, a sort of biography or linguistic history of the word. The credit for this particular list is given to one of the book's characters whom, it’s noted, only entered the words he was interested in. It’s also a book about the wild complexity of cultures and peoples in and around the Indian Ocean and southeast China. It’s also a character driven novel. And, at some point, it becomes something like a suspense novel – perhaps somewhat undermining some of the more serious aspects of the book.

The characters in this book have a cacophony of backgrounds that is simply wild. Almost all have some kind of ethnic oddity, or, lacking that, some kind of distinct personal history oddity. They might be Indian, Bengali, Indian born Englishmen, American freed slaves, half Indian/half some sort of Chinese, or a “lascar” – the random collection of Indian Ocean seamen from who knows where. Or some other ethnicity. Each has their own collection of languages they speak; some, like the lascars, having their own sort of compiled language. Individually they are quite interesting, and memorable - although having all of them in the same place and interacting with each other pushes my suspense of disbelief.

Ghosh is doing a lot of things here. He’s being both serious and having fun. He’s created a memorable group of characters, an odd but profound view of part of the darkest side of the British rule in India, and a pretty wacky story. Personally this left me entertained, but a bit confused as to what his real point was.
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LibraryThing member BCCJillster
What an incredible tale to satisfy many kinds of appetites. A broad array of interesting characters, as far apart in caste and location as can be at the start, come together as if drawn by a force of nature.

Set in 1830s India to start, it's rich with historical background at the level of daily lives. From a raja to workers of the opium fields, from the owner of a shipping fleet to a part-black lascar (sailor), with other oddly assorted lives mixed in to this tower of Babel. Throw in a Chinese prisoner, some pirates, a feared male who transmogrifies in a startling manner, and you have just some of the intriguing characters who you have to take seriously in their various plights. Sea of Poppies is an old time adventure on land and sea that promises to keep you invested in long-term outcomes.

This is the first of a promised trilogy that is destined for the Opium Wars in China. The first volume ends like the Perils of Pauline and I don't know how long I can bear to wait for volume two. I really want to know what's next

Pick it up if you're at serious about broadening your experience and want entrancing writing. I got hooked on Amitav Ghosh through his The Hungry Tide and The Glass Palace. Wonderful, wonderful.
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LibraryThing member cabegley
Sea of Poppies (the first of a trilogy) introduces us to a vast cast of misfits who eventually come together as a boatload of indentured servants headed to Mauritius. The characters don't really all come together until the last 50 pages or so, and it's somewhat disconcerting to have the story basically stop with so much clearly ahead. That said, I enjoyed the story to this point, and am looking forward to continuing the journey. I also would have appreciated a real glossary in the back--much of the spoken language, a pidgin of English, Hindi, and I'm-not-sure-what-else, requires effort to interpret.… (more)
LibraryThing member lit_chick
“The vision of a tall-masted ship, at sail on the ocean, came to Deeti on an otherwise ordinary day, but she knew instantly that the apparition was a sign of destiny, for she had never seen such a vessel before, not even in a dream: how could she have, living as she did in northern Bihar, four hundred miles from the coast? Her village was so far inland that the sea seemed as distant as the netherworld: it was the chasm of darkness where the holy Ganga disappeared into the Kala-Pani, ‘the black water.’” (3)

So begins Sea of Poppies, set in 1838 India, prior to the Opium Wars. At present, the opium trade is depleted as a result of resistance from the Chinese government. The “tall-masted ship” will prove to be the Ibis, a former slaving ship come vessel of the opium trade, now in refit to transport indentured labour from Calcutta to Mauritius. The novel is replete with a lengthy host of colorful and varied characters. The main ones include: Deeti, a simple and pious widow of a worker in the opium trade; Zachary Reid, an American sailor born to a slave mother and white father, a mulatto, who will become second in command of the Ibis; Neel Rattan Halder, a wealthy rajah whose estates have fallen desperately into debt, and who will find himself the victim of a corrupt justice system; Benjamin Burnham, owner of The Ibis, a wealthy evangelist opium trader and an influential force in Calcutta; Paulette, a French orphan raised in India, fluent in Bengali and uniquely more comfortable with Indian manners, food, and dress than with Western ones. As the stories merge, all of the characters will find themselves aboard the Ibis – the ship becoming, in essence, a shelter for those who are destitute. But the adventure is nowhere near finished: what “the black water” holds in store for each remains to be seen.

Sea of Poppies is written in three parts: Part I, Land (Calcutta); Part II, River (Ganga); and Part III, Sea (Indian Ocean). Amitav Ghosh is a consummate storyteller. His characters are richly and appreciatively drawn, each with a compelling story of his or her own. And his prose is exceptional: beautifully written, alluring and captivating. The glossary at the back of the book is helpful, though admittedly I often did not want to interrupt my reading, so many passages read as best-educated-guess-in-context. Will definitely read River of Smoke. This one is highly recommended.

“She looked at the seed as if she had never seen one before, and suddenly she knew that it was not the planet above that governed her life: it was this minuscule orb – at once bountiful and all-devouring, merciful and destructive, sustaining and vengeful. This was her Shani, her Saturn.” (415)
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LibraryThing member emily_morine
I was skeptical, initially, about Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies. I've read so many novels in which a building, character, or geographical feature becomes a metaphor for the entire country/culture of India (or, in the case of Shalimar the Clown, Kashmir). Here, it seemed to me, was the same conceit, being recycled in the form of a ship: the Ibis, a former slaver now refitted to carry opium, progresses from the harbors of the sacred Ganges beyond the Black Water one season in 1838, transporting an unlikely group of convicts, coolies, lascars and officers toward the island of Mauritius. I was wary of another facile equation of a concept like "diversity" or "journey" or "flowing river" with the whole of India. I needn't have been concerned, though. Ghosh's novel may work along a familiar pattern, but it's executed in a convincing and original way, which quickly won me over and kept me fascinated throughout.

To me, the most exciting thing about Sea of Poppies is the use of language. Unlike many books involving "dialect," Ghosh's novel doesn't pit nonstandard against standard English, creating a simple, easily-evaluated contrast (for example, "backwoods" dialect used to betoken a character's lack of education, or "urban" dialect used to signal that a character is hard-boiled). Instead, Ghosh pays close attention to the subtleties of MANY separate lingual groups, and lets them all mingle with one another in a rich mélange of well-realized, consistent but flexible voices. Take this passage, in which we get the seagoing pidgin of Serang Ali (the commander of the native Indian or lascar crew), the Indie-fied Irish brogue of the ship's captain, and the lightly inflected cadence of Ghosh's narrator, which blends subtly into the voices of the different characters:


       'No,' Zachary laughed. 'N'how bout you? Serang Ali catchi wife?'

       'Serang Ali wife-o hab makee die,' came the answer. 'Go top-side, to hebbin. By'mby, Serang Ali catchi nother piece wife...'

       A week later, Serang Ali accosted Zachary again: 'Malum Zikri! Captin-bugger blongi poo-shoo-foo. He hab got plenty sick! Need one piece dokto. No can chow-chow tiffin. Allo tim do chhee-chhee, pee-pee. Plenty smelly in Captin cabin.'

       Zachary took himself off to the Captain's stateroom and was told that there was nothing wrong: just a touch of the back-door trots - not the flux, for there was no sign of blood, no spotting in the mustard. 'I know how to take care o' meself: not the first time I've had a run of the squitters and collywobbles.'

I loved reading Serang Ali's dialogue; my mother and her brothers grew up on Oahu, and I grew up hearing Hawaiian pidgin bandied about whenever my uncles were visiting (my mom never picked it up, for some reason). The lascar pidgin bears certain similarities to Hawaiian pidgin, and I wonder how much contact there was between the two regions while both languages were developing. In particular, the use of "plenty" as an intensifier is common to both ("He hab got plenty sick"), and something about "Go top-side, to hebbin" is very familiar. I don't know much at all about Indian and sea-faring languages and pidgins, but I got the impression that Ghosh has a very careful ear and a thorough understanding of how language functions in society, which was a joy to read. For example, certain people in the novel "code switch" - that is, speak differently according to the company in which they find themselves. Zachary, the light-skinned American son of a freed female slave and her former owner, comes to feel at his ease with Serang Ali, and they speak to each other in a way that shows they trust each other - a way that doesn't try to hide their respective backgrounds.


       Three days later, exactly as promised, the twisted hills of Mauritius appeared on the jamma bow, with Port Louis nestled in the bay below.

       'I'll be dickswiggered!' said Zachary, in grudging admiration. 'Don't that just beat the Dutch? You sure that the right place?'

       'What I tell you no? Serang Ali Number One sabbi ship-pijjin.'

Yet in different company, such as the ship's white captain and belligerent lower-class first mate, Zachary speaks in standard English even when the other officers are speaking non-standard English - a subtle acknowledgment of his own inferior social position and/or respect for the other men. In the scene below, Zachary has a different motive for putting a high-class spin on his speech: he's conversing with Paulette Lambert, the daughter of a French botanist, who grew up speaking French and Bhojpuri, and whose English is at least as unorthodox as Zachary's own:


       'Is something the matter?' Zachary said, alarmed by her pallor. 'Are you all right, Miss Lambert?'

       'An idee came to my mind,' said Paulette, trying to make light of her sudden turn of thought. 'It struck me that I too would love to go to the Mauritius on the Ibis. Just like Jodu, working on a ship.'

       Zachary laughed. 'Believe me, Miss Lambert, a schooner's no place for a woman - lady, I mean, begging your pardon. Especially not someone who is accustomed to living like this...' He made a gesture in the direction of the loaded table.

       'Is that indeed so, Mr. Reid?' said Paulette, raising her eyebrows. 'So it is not possible, according to you, for a woman to be a marin?'

...

'Marine?' he said in surprise. 'No, Miss Lambert, there sure aren't any woman marines that I ever heard of.'

The plot of Sea of Poppies mixes a couple of standard plots - the "diverse people thrown together unexpectedly" with the "seagoing adventure" and a hefty pinch of the "political commentary" - but it's the manner of telling that I found particularly unique and engaging in this novel. Much like gender criticism that points out the ways in which every presentation of gender is performative and therefore involves aspects of drag, Ghosh emphasizes to his reader that there is no un-accented language, no manner of speaking that does not make claims, whether true or false, about the speaker. The range of lingual contexts Ghosh evokes here is staggering, and he is able to deal in subtle lingual differences as well as broad ones. In a smoking-room scene involving four white, middle-class Englishmen, for example, he expertly adjusts each man's level of good-old-boy bluster to indicate his position in the pecking order. (This same scene also features brain-boiling pieces of logic such as the British assertion that war with China is morally mandated: "We need only think of the poor Indian peasant - what will become of him if his opium can't be sold in China?") Not only that, but Ghosh has a similar sensitivity about quicksand nature of racial, religious, and sexual dynamics: Zachary's biracial background, for example, is something about which he's constantly on his guard. Much of the time, it's rendered surprisingly irrelevant and he comes off as a bit paranoid, but given the wrong set of circumstances it can erupt into unforeseen danger in a matter of moments.

Sea of Poppies is not a perfect novel - the exposition is sometimes fairly awkward, with one character leading a second into an information-dump about the back-story of a third. And there is a touch of so-called "Rushdie-itis" here and there - every time the narrative featured a flash-forward about different people who would, one day, end up in the character Deeti's shrine, I winced a little bit as I remembered Midnight's Children. Nevertheless, there was so much here that was unique and intriguing that I'm eager to pick up the next two books in this projected trilogy as soon as they become available. The originality of the language, the social insight, and the crafting of compelling characters makes me eager to spend more time in Ghosh's world.
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LibraryThing member Smiler69
Seemingly every LT member I know and even my hairdresser has been raving about this novel set in 19th century colonized India, so it had a lot of expectations to live up to. It's excellently well written, which was the first thing I was able to appreciate about it, though it took me almost half the novel to really warm to this adventure story in which lower caste Indian natives put their lives and security in the hands of a wealthy and ruthless shipping merchant who trades in Opium with China. Benjamin Burnham, a ruthless British shipping magnate and evangelist is thwarted by the Chinese who have outlawed the trade in Opium and falls back on shipping human cargo to the Mauritius islands to supply cheap labour (if not outright slaves) to the landowners. The novel is populated by many fascinating characters, who are all introduced in the first of this three-part novel. We first get to have a good glimpse of their circumstances and personalities and as the novel progresses, we are shown the ways in which their lives and destinies intermingle, culminating in a sea voyage filled with drama and adventure that is nearly impossible to put down. By that part, I loved this novel so much that I was strongly tempted to start all over from the beginning again just so I could fully appreciate Ghosh's characters and impressive construction, but in the end, the toppling TBR won over. Which is not to say I've given up on the idea of a re-read, and I certainly look forward to part 2 in this fascinating voyage with River of Smoke, to be read some time this year.… (more)
LibraryThing member madhavn
Amazing use of the language. Haven't felt this way about an Indian author in a long while. Ghosh takes his time in etching out the characters, the setting and lays the foundation of what can shape out to be a great epic. Look forward to the other two books in the trilogy.
LibraryThing member Opinionated
Well, its a bit of a penny dreadful isnt it? The book it reminds me most of is Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger - its very much written to the same formula. Find a vanished aspect of colonialism, in Unsworth's case the slave trade, for Ghosh its the opium trade, and you can construct a narrative thread that brings together a motley cast of mutlicultural characters. Even better if you can grasp the patois of the time - and Ghosh's use of maritime patois based on a mix of Malay, Hindi, Portugese and goodness knows what else, is the best thing about the book. The language feels right and helps you get into the characters' skins.

But the plot is predictable; people you think will fall in love, do so. People's who's fall is predicted, duly fall (finding humility in the process). Blaggards get their come uppance. True love overcomes obstacles. To the author's credit the plot rattles along and mostly sweeps you with it. But the author also has an irritating need to tie up all possible loose ends - characters who leave the narrative on p60 duly reappear on p400 - and how likely is it that you will find someone from your home village in central India on a ship from Calcutta to Mauritius for the sake of tying up a loose plot line? I find that sort of thing irritating

So overall entertaining in its way, but literary fiction its not
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LibraryThing member fuzzy_patters
This book centers on a large group of characters from India in the nineteenth century involved in the opium trade and the trade of indentured coolie labor. There are a wide variety of characters from various backgrounds such as landed Englishmen, high caste Indians, low caste Indians, Muslim Indians, Hindu Indians, a crew of sailors, and even an American seaman. This variety of characters enables Ghosh to contrast the various roles that each plays in Indian society and to show the inequities between each. For example, he contrasts the expectations of a landed Indian that he should get special treatment at court with the reality that he is treated unfairly by the English court that favors westerners. As such, the European imperialists became the new Brahmin class and upset the social order of Indian society. This provides Ghosh with great opportunities to show the reader how devastating it can be to have your cultural norms forced to change by outsiders as well as how power over others whom you perceive to be less human than you can corrupt you.

I enjoyed reading this book. It moves quickly and makes you question the foibles of our humanity without being overly preachy about it. Instead, most of the characters in the book are very human and treated fairly with few two-dimensional always good or evil characters. The only exceptions were a couple of members of the ship crew, who were portrayed as being very evil. The novel would have been even stronger if Ghosh had given more backstory on these characters to show how they became like they were so that they would be more human and believable to the reader. Outside of that weakness, I thought this was an excellent novel, and I look forward to reading the second book in this trilogy.
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LibraryThing member alaskabookworm
Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies is an original epic; it introduces characters from of a multitude of religions and upbringings and ethnicities from all over eastern India in 1838. Through a thoroughly clever storyline, the author brings his characters together into one place. Set amongst the poppy fields of the Ganges River and the wharves of Calcutta, Ghosh brings to life a time and a place so vividly it feels like actual time travel. Ghosh takes the use of language – historical and local use of idiom, tongue and vernacular – to a dizzying height, yet never once is the reader separated from meaning and motivation. I can't remember the last time I was so utterly convinced and transported by a book's places and people. They became my friends, in all their charm and shortcomings. Both wit and tragedy and an impeccable use of language make Ghosh's book brilliantly Dickensian. I have seldom read a book that is so perfectly balanced, well-written and without flaw. This is supposedly the first in a trilogy and I will eagerly wait for the next volumes.… (more)
LibraryThing member comato
I've started this book twice and haven't been able to stick with it. A big part of it is the pidgin English dialogue, which plays a part, at least in what I've read so far. I'll give it another chance later in the year...
LibraryThing member Widsith
This rollicking adventure story about colonial India was beaten to the 2008 Booker Prize by The White Tiger, a novel that trades on its gritty realism but which is actually just as much a fantasy of Indian life as this one. On the face of it, Sea of Poppies seems the more enjoyable. It has a huge, Dickensian cast that includes a fallen Rajah, a Chinese opium addict, a European girl gone native, a cross-dressing reincarnated saint, an American freedman and a poppy-farmer's widow, and its plot takes in dramatic rescues, nefarious Brits, girls-dressed-as-boys, floggings and secret assignations and portentous items of jewelry. Yet somehow there seems to be little going on under the surface – it's thematically a bit hollow and I kept feeling that I should be liking it more than I was.

At first glance, it's the sort of writing that should really appeal to me, because Ghosh's entry into this world and to these characters is all linguistic. Every character has their own ludicrous demotic, with our American second mate exclaiming, ‘Grease-us twice! What the hell you pesticatin me for,’ while Paulette, a young Frenchwoman, speaks in an entertaining but completely implausible Franglais – ‘you are just pleasanting me’, ‘he was quite bouleversed!’ The main narrative voice, meanwhile, is a hallucinogenic Anglo-Indian farrago that has been turned up to eleven, like Hobson-Jobson in an opium dream – the density of the following paragraph is not untypical:

In this floating bazar there was everything a ship or a lascar might need: canvas by the gudge, spare jugboolaks and zambooras, coils of istingis and rup-yan, stacks of seetulpatty mats, tobacco by the batti, rolls of neem-twigs for the teeth, martabans of isabgol for constipation, and jars of columbo-root for dysentery: one ungainly gordower even had a choola going with a halwai frying up fresh jalebis.

I have a high tolerance for (indeed love of) opaque vocabulary, but even I found it wearing here – the effect is too extreme to come across as anything but parodic. Tellingly, Ghosh reserves a special thank-you in his afterword for the ‘dictionarists’ whose work he so assiduously plundered – not just Hobson-Jobson, but also a variety of colonial-era slang-lists and glossaries, like A Laskari Dictionary or Anglo-Indian Vocabulary of Nautical Terms and Phrases in English and Hindustani. It's hard not to wish he'd been a smidgen more sparing in how he used this research.

Though I found it strangely unsatisfying, there is a lot to like here, really – lush, gothic descriptions of an opium factory, a British jail, the hold of a slaving vessel are all well worth the cover price, and the characters are so bizarre that they rarely struggle to hold your interest. I had a lot of fun, but I don't feel in a mad rush to read the rest of the trilogy.
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LibraryThing member celerydog
Georgeous language, looking forward to next part in this trilogy.
LibraryThing member lriley
On the subject of Amitav Ghosh--I can only conclude from Sea of Poppies and the other two works I've read that he's an excellent storyteller. A gifted writer. Sometimes those two things don't add up to greatness but in general it means that one way or another reading him won't be a waste of time.

Starting off on a different tack than some of the other reviews of the work--it's almost like I've written a conclusion before I even start reviewing the book. Even so--keeping on a different tack what strikes me somewhat is the characterizations that Mr. Ghosh is able to create here. There are numerous good guys and it's clear that the good guys are all nice people with good intentions. The more interesting characters for me are his bad guys--the underhanded supposedly god fearing plutocrat Benjamin Burnham and the judge he has in his pocket Kendalbushe supposedly spreading christianity, truth and justice but in reality--or the reality of the book--they've become super wealthy by lining their own pockets trough the spreading of their sanctimonious and self serving bs. They are really Dickensian characters. Two other evil doers of note--the brutal Bhyro Singh an Indian Army torturer and the first mate of the Ibis Mr. Crowle. The Crowle character in some respects seems straight out of Dostoyevsky.

As for the story itself it revolves around a sea voyage (in the early part of the 19 th century)from India to Mauritius of various down and outs either fleeing the law and/or poverty. The good people more or less being at the mercy of the bad and mostly through no crime of their own. Ghosh develops a number of these characters independently of each other and then brings them together on the boat. He has an excellent eye for period detail and a cheeky way of delivering dialogue and teasing readers in to looking up terms in the glossary he conveniently provides at the back of the work which at times very mischieviously only reroutes them to other terms.

So on the subject of Ghosh--this book and the other two of his I've read previously I can only conclude that he's a gifted writer and storyteller still working on creating a masterpiece and reaching greatness some day. I don't think this is it but OTOH Sea of Poppies is an entertaining and very often fun way to while away the time.
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LibraryThing member delphica
Opium, adventure, and romance on the high seas! During the Raj! This was really rollicking.

And wow, what a vivid book. It's almost unbelievable how vibrant it is. When you're reading it, it feels like a Jumanji scene where you open up the book and can immediately hear the sounds of the ship and smell the poppies and spices and everything floods into Technicolor, and then when you close the book it all stops. And then you keep opening and closing it for fun or until someone makes you knock it off.

I had the kind of little kid reading experience that I don't always get as an adult - the goodies are good and the baddies are bad and that's completely satisfying. I am positive that if I ever met the goodies, we'd be BFF and have amazing piratey adventures, and I'd spit on the baddies because they make you go Grrrrr in a mostly fun way. It's still a very thoughtful book, but in an awesome display of res ipsa loquitur, every single insight that emerges does so by way of moving the story forward.

So plot-wise, what is going on? You've got a whole ensemble of characters from different walks of life in early 19th century India - so sailors and lascars and a former Raj who is now imprisoned as a debtor and a French woman born in India and a widow who is on the run from her family for taking up with a man below her caste and a second mate who is a free person of color from America. Oh, and the devout temple-building guy who thinks he is transforming into a dead woman's spirit. And many more. And all of their fortunes come together on the Ibis, a former slaver that is now being used to transport indentured Indian labor to the Mauritius islands and opium to China.

I am assured there will be sequels. They cannot possibly be released quickly enough.

I should note that a lot, a lot of the dialogue is written out in pidgin and one could fight with the glossary or just try to roll with it. I did the latter, and it worked out.

Grade: A
Recommended: Hearty yes, especially to anyone who likes action-adventure intrigue type stuff. Weirdly, as much as I like historical fiction, here the historical setting seems almost incidental. I mean, it's excellently done, but almost so well crafted that you hardly notice it.
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Pages

528

ISBN

0670082031 / 9780670082032
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