Skip to content

Sea of Poppies (thoughts)

June 8, 2010

I literally finished Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh twenty minutes ago, and I thought it’d be fun to do a super-fresh, gushing review since for the most part I’m busy playing catch-up with my May books. :) So, let’s do a brief quiz, shall we? Do you….

  • share many a book blogger’s obsession with the Victorian period?
  • have a thing for nautical tales?
  • love epic novels teeming with characters and plotlines, so that it feels like a tapestry unfolding?
  • enjoy getting a strong sense of place while you’re reading?
  • prefer a plot that keeps you turning pages as fast as possible?
  • like authors who have a strong, developed writing style?
  • need an discussion-worthy selection for your book club?

Well, if you answered yes to at least one of the above questions, you should be running, not walking, to your nearest library/bookstore/generous friend to get your hands on Sea of Poppies! The one caveat I’ll mention here is that this is the first in a projected trilogy, and while the ending isn’t a complete cliff-hanger, I definitely wish I could get a hold of the second book right now. Teresa of Shelf Love compared it to how The Fellowship of the Ring ends when I was asking about it on Twitter yesterday, and I think her comparison is completely apt. Still, even if (God forbid) something happened to prevent Ghosh from finishing the next two books, I’d be happy that I’d read this one, and I feel deeply indebted to Bybee for her review, which is the reason I picked it up.

Seriously y’all, this is what reading should be….this is the kind of book that leaves me pitying anyone who doesn’t read for pleasure. Because why would you deny yourself this kind of magic?

Sea of Poppies isn’t the kind of novel that lends itself to a plot blurb, but I will tell you that it’s primarily set in northeastern India (and there’s a map at the beginning of the novel! tell me I’m not the only one that nerds out over maps!) in the 1830s, so firmly in Victorian times (which means, it works perfectly for the Our Mutual Read Challenge!). And that Ghosh must have done an incredible amount of research, because the language and the characters, even the minor ones, come off of the page so vividly I’d have thought I was reading India’s answer to Wilkie Collins, instead of a contemporary author writing a historical novel. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think the Collins reference is apt. Ghosh mixes some page-turning personal storylines (with a definite flare for the dramatic at times…suttee, anyone?) with more socially-aware broader themes…the politics of race, caste, gender, and of course the British Empire’s opium practices, all play out here. What’s so neat is that Ghosh has assembled an incredibly variety of characters, and then just lets them play out their lives…so the ‘themes’ arise naturally, and it never feels as if he’s foisting political opinions on the hapless readers. And can we talk about how refreshing it is to read a Victorian-set piece that doesn’t flatten out race relations or make ‘India’ an exotic, homogenous backdrop for a few white characters to play out against? Ghosh doesn’t dumb things down for the reader, but at the same time while a knowledge of ‘Indian basics’ enriches the reading (i.e.: when one character decides another is an incarnation of Krishna, I understood at the signs he’s looking for…but I’m by no means anything more than a novice when it comes to Indian culture), he provides enough context to allow you to figure out what’s going on. It’s a nice balance, and I’m always won over by an author who trusts his readers to fill in the blanks!

I feel like this novel is so rich I’m at a loss to narrow down which parts of it to talk about. :D I ADORE this kind of epic literature, the kind that creates a whole world that I could just curl up in and stay forever. But I’m afraid of drawing comparisons (*cough* War and Peace, The Children’s Book), because the comparisons that are springing to mind for me are also less ‘accessible’ than I would call this book, and I don’t want to scare anyone away. This isn’t a tiny book, but at 470 pages (hardcover) it’s not overly huge either, and it reads so quickly. I have a habit of reading about fifty pages of a book, then moving on to the next one in my rotation, but with Sea of Poppies I was always surprised at how soon I had hit the 50 page mark, and by the end I was reading 80 pages at a time with no sign of impatience. Ghosh includes quite a bit of period slang in his dialogues, which is sometimes a mishmash of English, Hindi, Bengali, and Bhojpuri, with one character throwing anglicised French in for good measure, but he does it in such a way that I could still understand what was going on. And just in case I had gotten completely lost, there was a forty-page glossary at the back, purportedly kept by one of the characters throughout his adventures and called a ‘Chrestomathy.’ This Chrestomathy has a whole delightful preface rooted in the world of Sea of Poppies, which just goes to show you the kind of author Ghosh is. :D

Speaking of which, I should probably share with you a sample of his prose, shouldn’t I? I suppose it’d be too much to quote the entire book, but I loved it too much to play favourites, so I just opened to a random section to give you a taste:

Despite the line of guards around the ghat, a crowd soon assembled to gape at the fleet, their attention being drawn particularly to the two largest patelis. Even by daylight, these vessels presented a handsome sight-and after nightfall, when their lamps were lit, they looked so spectacular that few of the townsfolk could resist taking a dekho. From time to time, prodded by lathis and spears, the crowd would be forced to part, clearing a path for those of the local zemindars and notabilities who wished to offer their salams to the two young assistants. Some were sent away without being granted an audience, but a few were accorded a brief reception, on board: one or the other of the Englishmen would come on deck for a few minutes, to acknowledge the offered obeisances. At each such appearance, the crowd pressed forward to get a closer look at the white men, in their jackets and trowsers, their tall black hats and white cravats.

Isn’t the writing sumptuous without feeling self-indulgent? *sigh*

I apologise if I’m making a spectacle of myself with all of this adulation. But it’s not every day I find a new potentially favourite author, and isn’t that the kind of thrilling feeling that should be shared? As for me, while I earnestly await the follow-up to Sea of Poppies, you better believe I’ll be going through Ghosh’s backlist! I’m thrilled to see that The Hungry Tide is set in the Sundurbans, an area I read about last year in Sy Montgomery’s nonfiction work Spell of the Tiger and that The Glass Palace is another historical fiction novel. It looks like he doesn’t allow himself to be confined in a genre box, so I can’t wait to get to know him better. As for you…why are you still here, instead of chasing down a copy of Sea of Poppies for yourself?! I promise: you won’t regret it.

99 Comments leave one →
  1. June 8, 2010 6:26 am

    I loved The Glass Palace so I have really wanted to read this, although I have been a bit intimidated by what I have read about the difficult slang. I think knowing there is a 40 page glossary intimidates me even more!

    • June 8, 2010 11:37 pm

      I’m glad to hear such good things about Glass Palace! Honestly, I never had to consult the glossary; I could always figure it out from context. :)

  2. June 8, 2010 6:29 am

    I’ve probably picked this up a dozen times and put it back on the library shelf: your review is all the encouragement I needed to actually take it home with me. It sounds as though it’s everything that I was hoping it would be!

    • June 8, 2010 11:37 pm

      I really hope you love it half as much as I did! :D

  3. June 8, 2010 7:14 am

    Now I am really glad I added it to the list, even if it will be a few years before I get around to it. Thanks for the awesome review!

    • June 8, 2010 11:37 pm

      The good thing about waiting a few years is that with any luck the other two will be published! lol

  4. June 8, 2010 7:19 am

    I’m not reading your whole review just yet, Eva – as I just started reading Sea of Poppies a few days ago! I’d add that anyone who loves unusual, archaic vocabulary and slang would also find this book appealing! I’m loving it so far.

    • June 8, 2010 11:38 pm

      Isn’t the diction great?! Can’t wait to see your thoughts on it. :)

  5. June 8, 2010 7:29 am

    I love this effusive review of yours! Sometimes you just need a good gush. I’ve read several really positive reviews of this one, and now with yours, I’m definitely excited to track down a copy of it and give it a whirl. I feel like big seafaring epics are perfect reads for the summer.

    • June 8, 2010 11:38 pm

      Yay! Totally agree re: seafaring epics. :D

  6. June 8, 2010 7:41 am

    Every time you gush this much about a book I find myself putting it on hold at the library. Sooo… imagine what I’ll be doing sometime in the near future? Probably reading Sea of Poppies. ;)

  7. June 8, 2010 8:07 am

    I’m totally a nerd for maps. We’re similar in our nerdiness over extras in books I think – maps, endnotes, indexes, bibliographies. I love it all!

    This novel sounds incredible though, so it’s on the wish list!

    • June 8, 2010 11:48 pm

      Yep; I think we’re definitely nerdy kindred spirits. ;) I think this novel is totally your style!

  8. winstonsdad permalink
    June 8, 2010 8:28 am

    i kept looking at this when it game out and didn’t fancy it ,not sure as you point out it have a number of things i like in a good book ,i may get to it ,all the best stu

  9. selena permalink
    June 8, 2010 8:44 am

    Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. and Yes.

    Guess I’ll go read it! Now! :D

  10. June 8, 2010 8:52 am

    Maps are the best. Fantasies and historical novels ought to be required to have them.

    I added this to my TBR list before I even finished your review. I hope my library has it!

    • June 8, 2010 11:48 pm

      Agreed re: maps! I hope your library has it too. :D

  11. bookgazing permalink
    June 8, 2010 8:53 am

    I have this, but as soon as I heard ‘trilogy’ I decided I would wait a while before starting it. Lit fic authors are notoriously terrible at completing trilogies in a reasonable amount of time (or at all I hear in the case of Hilary Mantle).

    • June 8, 2010 11:52 pm

      That makes sense. :) Maybe try some of the author’s backlist instead?

  12. June 8, 2010 9:21 am

    I share your love of this book, Eva! So fun to read your review. I especially loved Ghosh’s playful manipulation of language and dialect – it SHOWED the specificity and richness of the cultural stew in the area in such a fascinating & satisfying way; more effective than the “telling” on that subject that some other authors I’ve read have done. Anyway, thanks for helping me revisit a great read!

    • June 8, 2010 11:53 pm

      So true re: showing v. telling! And it brought the world to life so well. :D

  13. June 8, 2010 9:48 am

    I’m still totally intimidated by this :p But I’m so glad you enjoyed it!! And now I’m slightly more likely to pick it up next time I see it!! It does sound phenomenal!!

    • June 8, 2010 11:53 pm

      I hadn’t even heard of it before! So I didn’t have time to get intimidated. lol

  14. June 8, 2010 10:33 am

    I’m convinced! I just put it on hold at my library and am number 2 in line!

  15. June 8, 2010 10:55 am

    Yes, yes, yes to every question of your little quiz!:)
    I already have Sea of Poppies on my TBR list and am waiting to get it from the library. There’s only one copy in your library system and the book is out at the moment, but I hope to get it in a few weeks time. With any luck I’ll be able to read it during my summer vacation in July!
    And no, you are not the only one that nerds out over maps! :)


    • June 8, 2010 11:55 pm

      I can’t wait to see what your thoughts are when you finally get it. :)

  16. June 8, 2010 10:56 am

    This is a fantastic review! I knew I wanted to read this book before, now I want to run out and read it this second.

  17. June 8, 2010 10:56 am

    As someone mentioned above, I have also picked this one up a hundred times and put it back. I shall definitely pick it properly next time I see it as you are absolutely gushing.

    • June 8, 2010 11:56 pm

      I hope you enjoy it when you do pick it up. :)

  18. June 8, 2010 11:06 am

    I’m so glad you liked this book, Eva! I was transfixed the whole time I read it, and like you, I never experienced any impatience while reading it. Loved the glossary at the end too, and the map. Yup. Fellow nerd :)

    I linked to your review over at my place.

    • June 8, 2010 11:58 pm

      Wasn’t it delicious?! But now I want the second one to be published right now. lol

  19. June 8, 2010 12:29 pm

    I ran to grab this out of my TBR pile and move it to the top only to discover that I don’t have it. It’s going on my wish list for sure after that excellent review.

  20. June 8, 2010 12:44 pm

    This sounds wonderful. I’m not a big fan of nautical tales but do like everything else you pointed out about it so it’s on my list definitely!

    • June 9, 2010 12:03 am

      I think you’d enjoy it even if you don’t get excited over nautical tales! :)

  21. June 8, 2010 1:03 pm

    You just threw me into panic! I need to get it now!! I know the feeling of getting to know an author that you feel would be your favourite and chasing down his / her backlists!!

    I’m happy that you feel this way today! ;)

    • June 9, 2010 12:03 am

      Hehe: I hope it’s the good kind of panic!

  22. June 8, 2010 1:23 pm

    I am really berating myself for not have gotten this book during all the times I have seen it in my fav bookstore back home in India. Really! I’m so glad you liked this, because now I’m going to get this book soon as I can.

    • June 9, 2010 12:04 am

      Missed opportunities! No time like the present to correct it, though. ;)

  23. June 8, 2010 2:44 pm

    I can has boat book?

    I am so happy the public library here has this book! I’ll have to stop by there tomorrow at my lunch break and check it out. (I answered yes to, like, five of those questions.)

    • June 9, 2010 12:06 am

      Awesome! I want to see what you think of it. :D

  24. June 8, 2010 2:56 pm

    I’m adding this to my tbr right now. I love your enthusiasm. Your review will send so many people out to find this book that you really should be getting commission!
    Thanks, Dianne

  25. June 8, 2010 2:58 pm

    PS…..I absolutely swoon over maps in books. I like being a nerd!

  26. June 8, 2010 3:23 pm

    I’m convinced. Will run, not walk, to find a copy at the library! It sounds like it would make a nice tie-in with my current read, For All the Tea in China (since the opium and tea trades in the region were so closely linked).

    • June 9, 2010 12:13 am

      Yay! And you’re torturing me re: For All the Tea in China. :p

  27. June 8, 2010 3:55 pm

    I bought this book a couple of years ago and loved it. It was one of those books I finished in one go staying up the whole night to finally finish it. It was also one of the saddest books I read, sad because there was no way of having a happy ending. It was so full of emotion and passion, just couldnt put it down.

    • June 9, 2010 12:13 am

      I didn’t realise it was even available two years ago! But it’s definitely a keep-you-up-at-night kind if book. :D

  28. June 8, 2010 4:08 pm

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this! As I mentioned yesterday, it took a while for me to warm up to it, but once I did I was utterly hooked.

    Incidentally, I’m reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet right now, and it reminds me of Sea of Poppies (except in Japan). It has a similar melange of characters and a lack of preachiness. I think Sea of Poppies is a bit richer, but Thousand Autumns is more easily accessible (fewer central characters, less complexity in the linguistic play).

    • June 9, 2010 12:14 am

      Ohhh…I’ll wait until you finish and review it, but sounds like Thousand Autumns should be on my TBR list. :D

  29. June 8, 2010 5:08 pm

    This book sounds absolutely wonderful. I’m definitely going to order a copy. I just love the cover art of it too. :)

    • June 9, 2010 12:14 am

      Isn’t that cover gorgeous?! I think it’s the UK one, but the US one is cool too.

  30. June 8, 2010 5:43 pm

    I added this book to my list after you mentioned it the other day and happily my library has it so I shall be reading it very soon. Thanks for the review.

  31. June 8, 2010 6:20 pm

    good to see you blogging again, Eva :-)!

    I have this book in my TBR pile (surprise! lol) but think I will wait to start it until fall when there are less distractions. In your excerpt above, I counted seven unfamiliar words — not that I mind that in a book (especially if it has a glossary) .

    I also appreciate maps and genealogical trees, as well!

    Glad that you enjoyed this book so much.

    • June 9, 2010 12:16 am

      Thanks Valerie! :) I can see you waiting until the kids are back in school so you can really focus on it. hehe

  32. June 8, 2010 6:55 pm

    I love the gushing and I am now EVEN MORE disappointed that this book did not get selected for the next book club read.

    • June 9, 2010 12:16 am

      Aww; you’ll just have to read it on your own! ;)

  33. mlynxqualey permalink
    June 8, 2010 8:18 pm

    I look forward to getting hold of a copy when I’m in the U.S. this summer. Thanks!

  34. June 8, 2010 10:05 pm

    I also loved the bits of comedy Ghosh threw in!

    • June 9, 2010 12:17 am

      I know; I was laughing hysterically at some bits. Especially the culture clashes w/ Zach. :D

  35. June 8, 2010 11:12 pm

    I have The Hungry Tide sitting here and haven’t read any Ghosh yet so I will be sure and read it this summer and then hopefully move on to this one! Glad to have such a ringing endorsement of an author I’ve been looking forward to starting.

  36. June 9, 2010 1:48 am

    This sounds really, really good Eva and is one that I have had languishing on the TBR but been really unsure about. I think its the nauticalness of the book. I don’t tend to get on too well with books set on ships or at sea really but then maybe this could be the book that breaks the mould, especially as its set in the Victorian era!

    • June 11, 2010 12:57 am

      Really? That’s interesting since I love nautical stuff! :) Anyway, a lot of this book is set on land, since it’s the back stories of the characters and how they get to the ship, so you might enjoy it anyway. And the Victorian setting is great!

  37. June 9, 2010 5:39 am

    I enjoy Victorian lit but I have to read a Victorian-era modern novel. And this is set in India! How interesting. As you know, I’m really enjoyed Wilkie Collins these days, so I must give this a try too.

    Unfortunately in terms of book groups, I think 400+ pages would just about kill the people in my group. The average book length for what we read is about 150-200 pages…..

    • June 11, 2010 12:57 am

      Really?! I’ve never been in a book group, so I didn’t realise that short books were preferred. I think you should give it a go, though for yourself. ;)

      • June 11, 2010 4:49 am

        Eva, It may just be my particular book group. It’s a more of a social group and some of the people really aren’t readers. We read The Help and that is more than 400 pages, but yeah, some get scared with longer books!

  38. June 9, 2010 6:36 am

    Damn … I have got to speed through The Other Boleyn Girl and grab this off my library pile!

  39. June 9, 2010 7:00 am

    I’m so glad you loved this one and that your post is introducing Ghosh to many new readers. I can’t wait for the next book in the series. The Hungry Tide is the first of his novels that I read and the book that drew me into reading all f his books I could get my hands on.

    • June 11, 2010 1:00 am

      It sounds like I should read The Hungry Tide next then! :D

  40. June 9, 2010 7:14 am

    It’s great to see a reader gushing over a book they love :) Many people have recommended The Glass Palace to me (but I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet…) and I’d also read one his earlier novels, The Calcutta Chromosome which I enjoyed at the time. But I’m definitely going to read Sea of Poppies some day soon. You’ve sold me!

    • June 11, 2010 1:01 am

      Yay! Calcutta Chromosome sounds interesting in an outside-my-comfort-zone way. It’s neat that he’s written in different ‘genres’, you know?

  41. June 9, 2010 8:48 am

    Eva: I am SO with you on this one….I loved this book and can’t wait for Book #2 which hasn’t been hinted at anywhere so I am drumming my fingers anxiously on my desk waiting. I had not read Ghosh before Sea of Poppies, now all his books are on my wish list!

    • June 11, 2010 1:01 am

      It seems like everyone who’s read it has loved it! :D

  42. June 9, 2010 11:51 am

    So I guess if I’ve said yes to all your questions, I should pick up this book! Sounds wonderful. I wonder if my book club would be interested.

    • June 11, 2010 1:02 am

      Do pick it up! And try to convince your book club to pick it. :)

  43. June 10, 2010 2:26 am

    I book that includes Hindi sounds my kind of thing, I was interested before I read the summary! I know of but haven’t read about this period yet, which when I think about it is crazy. Thanks for your thoughts on it, Eva!

    • June 11, 2010 1:02 am

      I don’t know how you’ve managed to avoid a book set in the Victorian period! lol But if you’re a language person, you’ll love this book just for the dialogue. :D

  44. June 10, 2010 1:22 pm

    I am so glad you liked this one! I thought it was beautiful. The kind of book you just need to take your time with and savor.

    • June 11, 2010 1:03 am

      For sure! And a good book for rereading. :)

  45. June 11, 2010 12:34 am

    This one’s been on my shelf since it came out, I’ve heard only good things about it so I guess I’ll have to tackle it soon!

  46. June 13, 2010 2:06 am

    That is indeed a glowing review. I answered Yes to all your questions plus I love Wilkie Collins and books set in India. This sounds perfect.

  47. June 20, 2010 8:43 pm

    I say yes to all of the above and I ABSOLUTELY LOVED this one too! Now there are more of us clamouring for Ghosh to finish the next book already!! Cannot wait.


  1. Review: The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton « A Few of my Favourite Books
  2. The Literary Horizon: The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, Sea of Poppies « The Literary Omnivore
  3. Oh I should get that, or Additions to my Wishlist #4 « Kinna Reads
  4. Review: Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh « Jenny's Books
  5. Favourites Reads of 2010 « A Striped Armchair
  6. What Language Is by John McWhorter (thoughts) « A Striped Armchair
  7. The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett (thoughts) « A Striped Armchair

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: