Sea of Poppies (thoughts)
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.