A Voyage of Discovery: ‘Sea of Poppies’ by Amitav Ghosh (2008)


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.

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9 Responses to A Voyage of Discovery: ‘Sea of Poppies’ by Amitav Ghosh (2008)

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    I really liked this book, and couldn’t wait for each book in the trilogy to follow.

  2. writenlive says:

    I read ‘Sea of Poppies’ some time back.
    The range of the characters is mind boggling and the setting meticulously researched. The inter weaving of the lives of the diverse characters into the plot takes a lot of skill.
    I felt a little cheated when the book ended in the midst of the voyage ; I had at least expected to set foot on land.
    A rich tale, nevertheless!

    • I don’t think it’s a flawless novel, but like you I admired the skill and research behind it. I think I started to guess something was up with the pacing of the journey to a new land when, hundreds of pages in, the ship hadn’t even set sail yet!

  3. Stefanie says:

    I really liked this one too. I read it a number of years ago and I can say that yes, that visit to the opium factory sticks with you! I haven’t read River of Smoke yet but I feel like I am getting close to picking it up.

    • I look forward to reading your views on it. I’m sure I’ll read ‘River of Smoke’ at some point, but I won’t be rushing into it, unless your review really changes my mind that is 😉

  4. Pingback: Inspired by Diverse December: an A-Z of BAEM authors for 2016 | Shoshi's Book Blog

  5. Ann Marie says:

    I hadn’t heard of this trilogy but it sounds fascinating. I’ve read several books set in Europe, London or Paris mainly, that have characters addicted to opium, visiting opium dens, etc. For some reason I’m always intrigued by that part of the story.

    • You’ll learn a lot. I’ve picked up a bit of information about the opium trade and wars in the past, but I’ve never read anything like the description of the industry behind it that Ghosh presents!

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