Sea of Poppies
Amitav Ghosh (2008)
John Murray Publisher (2008)
513 pp

Sea of Poppies

Full disclosure: I’m suffering from Booker 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 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.

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