Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Sea of Poppies’ is the first in a trilogy of books that explores British colonial exploitation, specifically, exploitation through the trade in opium and indentured workers. In this introductory novel, we meet an array of disparate characters who, for vasty different reasons, will have their lives completely changed by contact with these two industries.
It’s a sprawling book, as you might expect for a story which takes well over 400 pages to get all of its key characters into place for their collective adventures to really begin. Such maneuverers after all do take time; we need a high Caste Hindu, an educated and plucky proto-feminist English woman, a widow escaping suttee, a mixed-race-but-passes-as-White American, the opium-addicted, Canton-born son of a Parsi and a Tanka and many other characters with equally colourful pasts all in the same place at the same time. Intricate plotting and a sprinkling of coincidences are definitely required.
If the sheer variety of characters sometimes seem to pull the plot in different directions, the driving message of the historical setting is clear. The inhumanity and hypocrisy of the colonial system are best shown when outsider characters find themselves witnesses to its horror. There are several extremely powerful set pieces; personally, I know that the description of a nightmarish visit to an Opium factory will remain with me long after I’ve forgotten the complex details of the numerous characters’ lives.
Moving on to a much less pernicious addiction, I can easily see how readers get hooked on Ghosh’s trilogy. ‘Sea of Poppies’ finishes before the crowded Ibis (the ship that gives its name to the trilogy) even reaches its promised destination in Mauritius. I’m not going to immediately dive in to the sequel, ‘River of Smoke.’ I need a bit of mental preparation before facing up to more of the terrible realities of the lead up to the Opium Wars. Also, I must confess I found Ghosh’s use of period language, creating pidgins and making frequent use of contemporary slang words, distracting rather than engrossing (I’ve written more on the issues around writing in the vernacular here). At some point though, I’ll be ready to continue the adventures with Ghosh’s cast of intrepid outsiders, and I’ll be sure to let you know what new discoveries are in store.