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Amitav Ghosh: Sea of Poppies

Before you read the book:

Full disclosure: I’m suffering from Book fatigue, a severe case.  I thought only the members of the committee should have to suffer through this affliction since they read 100+ books, but this year I just can’t wait to be over and done with the longlist.  The worst part is that this is having a negative effect on my enjoyment of my reading.  This review should be taken with a grain of salt because I know that if I had read it at any other time of the year, I would probably have liked Sea of Poppies (2008) more.  I’ve tried to figure out where the book failed on its own ground and where I failed it. 

Not that I didn’t like it, exactly.  On the contrary, it is one of the better books on the list.  But I usually have to set myself up for books like this one – longish, omnisciently narrated, morally indignant, historical feeling (both in subject and style).  Lately I’ve been reading so many fantastically unique books (to me – and I’m not talking about the ones on the longlist) that this one felt incredibly familiar and run-of-the-mill.  It probably doesn’t help that I read Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger earlier this year.  The two are alike in style (both have a similar narrative thrust and feel) but they are not alike in execution – when comparing the two books, Ghosh’s ability with words is far superior.

Like Sacred Hunger, Sea of Poppies is a book about a boat: the Ibis, which used to be a slave runner.  And like Sacred Hunger, Sea of Poppies spends a great deal of time getting a large cast of disparate characters together on the boat.  It is, in fact, quite late in the book before the boat takes off.  That’s not a bad thing, by any means, as the coming together of the cast is interesting.  Ghosh is very good at setting up a scene, so the locations where these characters originate and then mingle are all nicely drawn up and evocative.

Interestingly, however, the crew and the large cast of other characters are both a strength and a weakness to the book.  Some of them are fairly predictable – they are ugly evil and we know their type well.  For example, the self interrested owner of the vessel, Benjamin Burnham, who always has a perverse argument to explain why he’s not only right but progressive:

“The Ibis won’t be carrying opium on her first voyage, Reid.  The Chinese have been making trouble on that score and until such time as they can be made to understand the benefits of Free Trade, I’m not going to send any more shipments to Canton.  Till then, this vessel is going to do just the kind of work she was intended for.”

The suggestion startled Zachary: “D’you mean to use her as a salver, sir?  But have not your English laws outlawed that trade?”

“That is true,” Mr Burnham nodded.  “Yes indeed they have, Reid.  It’s sad but true that there are many who’ll stop at nothing to halt the march of human freedom.”

“Freedom, sir?” said Zachary, wondering if he had misheard.

His doubts were quickly put at rest.  “Freedom, yes, exactly,” said Mr Burnham.  “Isn’t that what the mastery of the white man means for the lesser races?  As I see it, Reid, the Africa trade was the greatest exercise in freedom since God led the children of Israel out of Egypt.  Consider, Reid, the situation of a so-called slave in the Carolinas – is he not more free than his brethren in Africa, groaning under the rule of some dark tyrant?”

However, most of the characters have interesting aspects of their past that influence their relationships and actions throughout the book, and they are more fulfilling that the ones we recognize from other books.  Strangely, despite this potential – or perhaps because of the potential – I still found some of the characters underdeveloped.  But perhaps that is because I wanted more, which is promised to come later since this is the first book in a trilogy.

Ultimately, though, I left the book a bit disappionted.  Ghosh is a great writer and this was a great setup for a greater story.  As I said above, it is not that this was an awful book.  I just wasn’t in the mood for a book where the narrator sounds so Victorian:

But money, if not mastered, can bring ruin as well as riches, and for the Halders the new stream of wealth was to prove more a curse than a blessing.

But that is not the book’s fault.  I should have been prepared to take on that kind of writing.  Furthermore, Ghosh’s book has pleased me in ways most of the others on the longlist have not.  He offers a very detailed, well balanced story that explores a fascinating time in history.  His characters are the type I want to encounter again.  And so I shall.  When the next installment in the trilogy comes along, I will read Sea of Poppies again, on my own terms, to prepare myself for a more immersive experience.  I’m positive this trilogy, because of Ghosh’s skill, will stay with me.  Sacred Hunger has remained with me, and as I mentioned earlier, it’s not done as well as Sea of Poppies.

And for those of you who are wondering if I’m going to inflict this upon myself again, if I’m again going to take it upon myself to read a long list – probably not.  I have learned a valuable lesson here: I must not allow a goal to read books mess up my enjoyment of the books. 

John Self, at The Asylum blog, found this book to be one of his favorites of the longlist, and he has given a more positive, and I think more “true,” review.

After you read the book:

Only one more on my longlist, The Northern Clemency.  I haven’t heard much good about it, so I’m sure I’ll have an even harder time dealing with it than I did with Sea of Poppies.  Once I’m through with the list, this portion of my post will return to what it was intended.

10 thoughts on “Amitav Ghosh: Sea of Poppies

  1. Well I loved The Northern Clemency above all others. I read all 763 pages in one sitting. Whatever that is worth.

  2. John Self says:

    Dovegreyreader loved The Northern Clemency too Trevor. However my thoughts, which have gone up today, are not so positive!

  3. Candy, I’m afraid I have some bad news. I’ve put down The Northern Clemency – for good. I am simply not being fair to it when I try to push through it just to finish both it and the longlist. I will still be posting my thoughts on Thursday and would love your counterbalancing comments!

    John, I’ll be referring people to your site and to dovegreyreader’s to see contrasting reviews from two people who actually finished the book!

  4. KevinfromCanada says:

    Given that we know this is the first book in a trilogy, it is hard to come to any other positive conclusion than “I’m looking forward to the next one.” I did find it interesting and worthwhile, but I admit mainly in terms of thinking the next volume will be better. Pat Barker won the Booker for Ghost Road — I think I could make a good argument that it was the weakest book in the Regeneration Trilogy. Having said that, it was a great trilogy.

    As for The Northern Clemency…

  5. I must say that a bit of time has passed since I finished this novel, and it is standing out more than most of the others on the list. I’ll definitely be reading the next installment.

    I’m not 100% sure that this one stands well enough on its own to garner a Booker Prize, though. I had the same problem with The Ghost Road, which I read before the others in the trilogy.

  6. Isabel says:

    I Hated Sacred Hunger. But, I read all of Unworth’s other books before reading Sacred. The topic didn’t appeal to me.

    I think that you gave this book a fair chance

  7. Your review seems true enough to me Trevor, it seems a very Victorian sort of novel (in theme and content, not just voice), and while I can enjoy such novels tremendously (and am looking forward to the copy of The Glass Palace currently sitting on my shelf and which I hope to read soon), one does have to be in a certain sort of mood for them in my experience.

    I do agree with Kevin’s comment on the trilogy point, at this stage it’s not actually a completed work, it’s one panel of a tryptch. Until we have the full trilogy and can judge it in the round we can’t say anything definitive about it (particularly not me, given I’ve not read it yet). If the final novel of the three is poor, inevitably in a work of this nature that would call into question the value of reading the first two.

    A couple of small follow-up queries:

    Victorian-style novels, being generally so packed with incident, can sometimes get away with less precise prose than a smaller and less packed work might be able to. I note though you compare it favourably with the Unsworth on that regard, how would you rate Ghosh as a prose stylist overall?

    Also, this is quite a large work as I recall, in terms of pagecount. Is that space justified and necessary? Is it large due to ambition and scope, or due to fat that could use trimming?

  8. Good questions, Max. Since this was one of the better books up for the Booker this year, it’s nice to think about it again.

    I think Ghosh’s prose style is excellent. On that regard, it might be the best written work up for the Booker. As far as being precise, however, I’ve recently been reading a lot of Philip Roth and just recently Richard Yates – compared to them, Ghosh is quite abstract, going for feel rather than precision. But I think that compared to other Victorian-esque novels, Ghosh’s prose style was precise, even if like them it is not overly concise.

    As far as page count goes, it actually took me a while to get into the book. A lot of that time is spent getting to know characters, though, so it isn’t awful. I think that given the objectives of the book, it’s page count is justified. And it looks, honestly, like Ghosh has enough control over things to make the trilogy worth its page count too. What I mean by that is that he gave no indication that by the time book three comes around he’ll need 1000+ pages to wrap it all up.

  9. That’s all good news, I’m still reading The Gift of Rain presently (barely started really, just tw chapters in, excellent chapters though) and I may struggle to put another novel set in early 20th Century South Asia immediately after it (Glass Palace I mean here), but I’ll certainly bump it up my pile looking at your response.

    I’m avoiding Sea of Poppies at present as I think it’s still only available in hardback, plus I have a morbid fear of authors dying just after completing book two and thus leaving me adrift without literary closure (to use an Americanism for which there is no direct British equivalent).

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