"The Ibis, loaded to its gunwales with a cargo of indentured servants, is in the grip of a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal; among the dozens flailing for survival are Neel, the pampered raja who has been convicted of embezzlement; Paulette, the French orphan masquerading as a deck hand; and Deeti, the widowed poppy grower fleeing her homeland with her love, Kalua. The storm also threatens the clipper ship Anahita, groaning with the largest consignment of opium ever to leave India for Canton. And the Redruth, a nursery ship, carries "Fitcher' Penrose, a horticulturist determined to track down the priceless treasures of China that are hidden in plain sight: plants that have the power to heal, or beautify, or intoxicate. All will converge in Canton's Fanqui-Town, or Foreign Enclave: a tumultuous world unto itself where civilizations clash and sometime fuse. It is a powder keg awaiting a spark to ignite the Opium Wars. Spectacular coincidences, startling reversals of fortune, and tender love stories abound. But this is much more that an irresistible page-turner. The blind quest for money, the primacy of the drug trade, the concealment of base impulses behind the rhetoric of freedom: in River of Smoke, the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries meet, and the result is a consuming historical novel with powerful contemporary resonance. Critics praised Sea of Poppies for its vibrant storytelling, antic humor, and rich narrative scope; now Amitav Ghosh continues the epic that has charmed and compelled readers all over the globe"--Provided by publisher.
In historical novels the past can sometimes feel tamed; hindsight, hovering just off the page, tells us that we know what it all added up to and what came of it (the First Opium War, during which British gunboats enforced a treaty opening Chinese ports to international trade, comes shortly after the ending of this novel). But Ghosh's novels somehow succeed in taking us back inside the chaos of when "then" was "now". His grasp of the detail of the period is exhaustive – he is so thoroughly submerged in it – that readers can't possibly remember all the things he shows them, or hold on to all the life-stories of all the characters he introduces. Both novels are cabinets of curiosities, crowded with items that hold a story of their own.
Where Sea of Poppies, with its colorful cast of characters was a wild, sea-faring tale, this second part of Amitav Ghosh’s trilogy is a land adventure, based in the coastal Chinese city of Canton. The theme is very simple: the assault of an unsuspecting people by greedy foreign entrepreneurs importing opium. These businessmen from the UK, US and India (where the poppies are grown) are “free traders” and fail to see themselves as responsible for the unsavory habits of those Chinese citizens who choose to imbibe.
Along the way we are treated to Ghosh’s lovely prose and the mingling of historical fact and fictitious figures because make no mistake: this is a history lesson like not many historical fiction novels can claim to be. When a new Commissioner, Lin Zexu (an actual historical figure) is appointed, who rumors say will clean up the opium problem, he is described in this way:
”Commissioner Lin’s arrival had been preceded by a steady flow of reports about his southwards journey. These accounts had created an extraordinary ferment in the province. The stories being told were such as to make people wonder whether the Yum-chae might not be the last of a breed of men that had long been thought to be extinct: an incorruptible public servant who was also a scholar and an intellectual---a state official like those memorialized in legend and parable.” (Page 396)
Ghosh paints a picture of life in Canton, especially in the foreign enclave known as Fanqui-town, with incredible artistry and realistic aplomb. You think you’re right there with him and the Achha, with the foreign businessmen and the mandarins, with the rich and the poor. His complex development of the character of Bahram Modi had my head spinning. I had such compassion for him and yet, he was preying on the Chinese people because of his greediness. But his employees were blindly loyal to him anhd tried to protect him. My emotions were going back and forth as if I was watching a tennis match.
Alternately we learn through the letters of Robin Chinnery, a frustrated artist, of the hunt for an elusive rare Golden Camelia. His letters to the French orphan, Paulette, who was working with a horticulturalist on the Redruth, offer a light and humorous touch to the narrative.
Carefully researched and beautifully written, I will be happily waiting for the last part of this trilogy. Highly recommended.
Although the story may not have captivated me quite as much as Sea of Poppies, I think River of Smoke is, in many ways, the better book. What this book offers is a good story, peopled with engaging characters, but the payload for me was the history. The detailed descriptions of Canton in 1839, from the clothing, the food, the customs, the religion and, mostly, the political situation. I knew very little about this period of history particularly it’s financial importance both in Asia and the Western World. Ghosh manages to paint a vivid picture of power, money and greed and conveys his facts without losing the readers’ interest.
The use of Robin’s letters to Paulina at the start of many of the later chapters was simply brilliant. Written in a humorous, chatty tone, he was able to bring together the various threads of the story, the opium trade, the search for the elusive golden camellia, as well as the political manoeuvrings. In contrast we have the darker story of Bahram Modi who had so much to gain or lose in this conflict.
Overall, River of Smoke was a rich, satisfying read, managing to be both exotic and informative.
While I was disappointed at first that Ghosh didn't continue his focus on the characters from Sea of Poppies, the new cast and setting were exhilarating. He describes every character and their backstory (and the backstories of their backstories) with extreme detail. What sets this trilogy apart is the language. Here is a taste of dialogue that contains many obscure references in Hindustani and Pidgin:
"So you have seen the world a little, eh munshiji?" said Bahram. "Done a chukker or two? Tasted something other than daal-bhat and curry-rice? Munshis who can manage chair-sitting are not easy to find. Can you handle knife-fork also? Little-little at least?"
Half the time I don't know what they're saying, but I was so caught up in the world that it hardly mattered. The theme of the drug trade is wholly relevant to today and it was heartbreaking to witness the gestation of a time when men made their riches from the addictions and misery of others. I can't wait for the 3rd installment where I'm sure Ghosh will bring all his characters into the explosive Opium Wars.
As it turns out, neither book is about the people, it's about opium. Sea of Poppies is populated by people in India involved somehow in the growing and processing of the poppies. River of Smoke is about the opium trade in Canton, and the smuggling trade which has grown up around it.
The time is of the first Opium War between the British and China. Western intervention being what it is, makes this war about trade expansion regardless of the invaded country's desires. Selfish, infuriating Westerners.
Ghosh's details and characters are so much fun to read. His research touches a period of time, and an event, I knew nothing about and now want to know more about.
Writers like Ghosh are the reason I purposefully extend myself into international waters each May. They expand my horizons and expose me to new things.
If you like Sea of Poppies, you will like River of Smoke.
A cyclone in the Bay of Bengal threatens the Ibis and its crew and passengers, and tosses crates of opium about the hold of the Anahita. Another ship, the Redruth, carries Fitcher Penrose, a horticulturist, and his plants – beautiful specimens which Penrose hopes to trade for plants in China. As these ships converge on the south coast of China, their passengers will connect in surprising and unusual ways. Hovering above it all is the smoke of opium and the smell of money, two things which will elevate tensions and ignite the beginning of the Opium Wars.
Amitav Ghosh’s second novel in the Ibis Trilogy begins with a familiar character, Deeti, who is making her home on Mauritius. Years have passed since her fateful trip on the Ibis and she is imparting her stories to a new generation. So it is Deeti’s voice which reverberates through River of Smoke as the reader uncovers the destiny of the characters from Sea of Poppies.
Ghosh re-introduces many characters from the first book including Deeti, Neel, Paulette, and Ah Fatt. But he also brings to life several new characters both fictional and historical. Bahram, a Bengal opium trader, takes center stage as his ship, the Anahita, is threatened by the cyclone. Despite losing a huge amount of his precious opium in the storm, Bahram still retains enough of his merchandise to make him a rich man…except that the Emperor of China has decided it is time to stop the influx of opium into his country. As Bahram and the other wealthy traders arrive in Canton, their ships remain anchored in the waters surrounding the south coast of China with their bilges full of opium and no way to sell it. Bahram is a strangely sympathetic character despite his immoral choice of career.
It was evident too that Ah Fatt had been right to describe Bahram as a man who was widely liked, even loved. From his employees he commanded an almost fanatical loyalty not only because he was a generous paymaster and fair in his dealings, but also because there was something in his manner that conveyed to them that he did not consider himself to be above, or better, than anyone on his staff. It was as if they knew that despite his wealth and his love of luxury, the Seth remained at heart a village boy, reared in poverty: his irritability was regarded as more endearing than offensive, and his occasional outbursts and dumbcowings were treated like vagaries of the weather and were never taken personally. – from River of Smoke, page 211 -
Bahram represents the Indian people and the shame associated with the production of opium. The largest grower of opium, India’s society and people were also devastated by the drug during the nineteenth century. Many citizens of India turned to the production and trade of opium under British colonial rule as a way to survive in their poor economy. In River of Smoke, Bahram struggles with this moral dilemma.
It was because you knew that almost all the ‘black mud’ that came to Canton was shipped from your own shores; and you knew also that even though your share of the riches that grew upon that mud was minuscule, that did not prevent the stench of it from clinging more closely to you than to any other kind of Alien. – from River of Smoke, page 182 -
Ghosh deftly controls the narrative, weaving individual stories through the larger drama of the historical events. By the 1830s, China’s economy and society were being destroyed by the opium trade and a decision was made to halt the trade at whatever cost. Lin Zexu, a Chinese scholar and official, was dispatched to Canton to stop the trafficking of the drug in 1839. His decision to hold British traders hostage until they agreed to turn over their opium to the Chinese government, was the first spark in the Opium Wars. Money and greed, along with a disrespect of China’s laws made foreigners belligerent and resistant to giving up their trade in opium. British warships descended on China in an effort to continue smuggling the drug into the country. Ghosh’s novel is set during this turbulent time and examines the immorality and devastation of the opium trade through the eyes of the traders, the politicians, and the common man.
There is also a parallel story within the novel – that of Paulette, a Frenchwoman who has escaped the Ibis, and Fitcher Penrose, an English horticulturist. Paulette and Fitcher’s tale brings a different perspective to the novel. It is this narrative which shows the reader the beauty of the Chinese landscape with its brilliant flora. Their trade is in the delicate petals of flowers, and the allure of fragrant plants. Paulette’s flamboyant and hilarious friend, Robin, is an artist and their informant in Canton as they seek an elusive flower of unusual elegance.
Amitav Ghosh has written a sweeping historical saga which builds upon the previous book in the trilogy. Despite its huge cast of characters, the novel is quite accessible. Once again, Ghosh intersperses pigeon English, slang and unusual language throughout the story – a technique that at times is a bit confusing and may appear off-putting to some readers, although it did not bother me. My only complaint with the book was that the pace was sometimes slow. In comparing this novel with Sea of Poppies, I slightly preferred the first book of the trilogy.
That said, River of Smoke is a brilliant work of fiction and one which I thoroughly enjoyed. Readers who love historical fiction and are interested in the late nineteenth century in China will find themselves immersed in a culture and time in history which is endlessly fascinating.
In the first novel, Sea of Poppies, Ghosh introduces the reader to a large group of characters, who are involved in the opium trade in India in various capacities. Eventually, the characters are on a ship, the Ibis, that is headed for Mauritius. In River of Smoke, events lead to some of these characters travelling to Canton, China, which is where most of this second novel takes place.
Many of the characters in River of Smoke were real people in the historical record, and the research that Ghosh undertook to write the novel is very impressive. Most of this novel takes place during the events leading to the First Opium War. The central dilemma in the novel is whether the British, American, and Indian citizens living in Canton should cease smuggling opium, per the orders of the Chinese government. While anyone with any historical knowledge of the situation already knows how this will develop, this is still a fascinating read. Ghosh does an excellent job in characterizing these historical figures, and he gives the reader a vested interest in finding out how each character is affected by this.
I liked this novel. I did not think that it was quite as good as Sea of Poppies, but I still liked it. Sea of Poppies had more of a mysterious quality and an epic scope than River of Smoke. River of Smoke started out in much the same vain as Sea of Poppies, but it seemed to lose some of that quality as the scene moved to Canton.
The other issue that I had with the novel was that Ghosh was too descriptive at times. In some parts, I found myself rolling my eyes and thinking, "Just get on with it already!" Description is a good thing, but there is such a thing as overkill, and I thought that Ghosh was guilty of this at times.
Still, this is an interesting read. I recommend it for anyone who is interested in the time period, drug smuggling, and nineteenth century China. I am anxiously awaiting the third installment of the series, which I think says as much as anything.
I had absolutely adored its predecessor, [Sea of Poppies] and had looked forward to savouring this continuation of the immensely complicated but utterly enchanting plot that had unwound so deliciously in the first book. My hopes for a fine and entertaining read were maintained throughout the first half of this volume which featured the same mix of humour, tragedy, history and all-round amusement. However, I suddenly encountered the reader's equivalent of the marathon runner's wall, and found that i could barely summon the mental energy to continue.
It's not that this is a bad novel - it is just that for reasons I can't quite identify i found myself suddenly suffering an inescapable bout of ennui. I suddenly just didn't care what befell those same characters whose exploits, merely a couple of chapters earlier, had kept me so enthralled.
It is a long time since I felt quite so badly let down by a book that had seemed so promising!
Fortunately, the last part of the book, set in Canton at the onset of the Opium Wars, is a another fine example of Ghosh's mastery in gripping historical fiction.
Perhaps this was the start of a new and equally enthralling tale, I told myself gamely. But no. It was a struggle to read the first half of the book, and although the plot in the second half was more interesting, the characters never intrigued me the way Deeti and Kalua, Jodu, Ah Fatt, and Zachary did. River of Smoke is the story of Bahram, the prosperous opium dealer with whom Neel finds employment, and Robin Chinnery, the gay naif living in Canton, who communicates his adventures in letters to Pauline. Although present in the story, Neel plays only a peripheral role, and Pauline is talked to and about but never given voice.
For me, the book's saving grace was the history of Canton and the inhabitants whose actions instigated the Opium Wars. As the second half gained speed, I found myself reengaged with the story. Perhaps if I had not had certain expectations of continuity, River of Smoke would have stood on its own as a decent historical novel. The hypocrisy and belligerence of the British Empire seems shockingly at odds with the calm, logical Chinese. I enjoyed the descriptions of life in Canton, and I would like to read some nonfiction, if anyone has any suggestions!
I should add that Ghosh describes the experience of smoking opium in such a sensual way that he makes it seem very attractive -- so this book could potentially be a gateway drug. You have been warned.
The story is Dickensian in its sweep of characters who represent different classes and interests that intermingle on the edge of China each linked together by the power of Opium. The book is linked to the first novel by the Ibis, a former slave ships carrying convicts and indentured workers to Mauritius. A storm overtakes the Ibis and the Anahita, an opium carrier out of Bombay owned by Bahram, a Parsi merchant, and the Redruth, outfitted by a Cornish plantsman for botanical exploration. The storm links the destinies of the characters on these three ships. The story is filled with details about the place and time in which you, as reader, are immersed by this novel so much so that you sometimes feel that you are present in Canton, or any of the many other places that Ghosh imagines. While the book focuses on three primary ships and their clan the central characters represent high- and low-life intermingling . Through it all Ghosh conjures up a thrilling sense of place.
Suspense builds as the interests of the British, Indian and other foreign opium traders collide with growing resistance from the Chinese rulers. The conflict is brought to a climax by the appointment of a new commissioner by the Emperor whose primary aim is to put a stop to the quantities of ruinous opium being smuggled into the country. Neither side has completely clean hands and opium, like other drugs in our own era, seemed to have an irresistible power. As Bahram told Napoleon (yes, he and his aide meet the General), opium was like the wind or the tides: "A man is neither good nor evil because he sails his ship upon the wind. It is his conduct towards those around him--his friends, his family, his servants--by which he must be judges." (p 166) In the end, Bahram finds himself wanting.
Canton in the first half of the nineteenth century was one center of globalism of the age. Ghosh's use of language continues to impress the reader as it spans English, Hindi, Parsi, Malay, and Chinese; perhaps at times it becomes overwhelming. Nonetheless the stories and characters who populate them entrance the reader. The metaphors and allusions reach from the West to the East . At one point near the middle of the book there is a reference to Gericault's masterpiece, "The Raft of the Medusa". The plight of these castaways strikes me as an appropriate metaphor for the players in the Opium trade as the events in the book take their toll as the story ends.
I love how Ghosh brings the reader so completely into each character's story, yet brings all of their stories into a cohesive whole.
Meanwhile, in Canton, we are treated to an up close and personal view of the machinations of the British. Desperate to maintain the opium trade and to gain a foothold in China, they are willing to go to war and no personal sacrifice on the part of any of their trading partners is too great to keep them from this goal.
Mainly, I was overwhelmed by the descriptions of every blessed thing, from boats to clothing. These exhaustive descriptions were even included in "newsy" letters from Robin to Paulette (female amateur botanist not allowed into Canton). This tended to detract from the flow of the story.
While the first volume carried the historical background lightly on the wonderful story telling, this second volume is more laboured. The historical background is now the lead part of the book, and weaving the historical with the narrative has become more contrived.
But, having said that, this series is shaping up as something special, and I will be certain to read the final volume.
Read March 2018