Tuesday, January 26, 2010

REVIEW: Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh


Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh. Published 2009 by Picador. Literary Fiction.

I read this book courtesy of LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.

Shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize, Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies is a dense, difficult novel that started slow for me but built to a riveting cliffhanger by the closing pages. It's the first of a planned trilogy and a great literary read.

Set in India just prior to the Opium Wars (1839 and 1856) Ghosh's novel follows a panoply of characters- Deeti, the widow of an opium worker who marries a lower-caste man and flees her family; Paulette, a French orphan who wants more out of life than learning Bible verses and making idle conversation; her childhood friend Jodu; Neel, an upper-caste man who finds himself disgraced and degraded; and Zachary, a sailor trying to navigate more than just his way across the sea. All of these characters- and others- are in some way connected to the opium trade, which Ghosh shows as a pervasive and insidious fact of life. Issues of gender, race, caste and colonialism conspire with the drug trade to shape the characters' lives, but Ghosh's people are not pawns in some political manifesto but willful and active doers who strive to make their own destiny.

I will admit I almost gave up on Sea of Poppies in the first few chapters. Ghosh's language is a vibrant stew of English and Indian dialects and the seadog vernacular aboardship reminded me of reading (or trying to read) Patrick O'Brian's seafaring classic Master and Commander- rig the topmastforesail and hoist the petards, or something, only half in a language I don't understand and with no real explanation. Even the glossary at the back is very little help. And the use of dialect continues throughout the book but I found I could understand most things in context.

I'm glad I stuck with it, though, because after a while with Ghosh's musical medley of languages, a kind of harmony develops and you'll find yourself fluent before you even realize it- and you'll find yourself engrossed in the story as his characters come together aboard a rickety vessel lurching towards an uncertain future. I felt for Neel's compounding humiliations and admired Deeti and Paulette for their tough determination in the face of cultural forces that would willingly crush them. Once the drama starts, it doesn't let up till the very last sentence- and then if you're like me, you'll find yourself flipping the back pages to make absolutely sure it's the end because you'll want it to keep going and going.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

22 comments:

Amy said...

This has been on my bookshelf for awhile but now I HAVE to read it!!!

-Amy
Life by Candlelight

Wendy said...

Marie...so glad to see you loved this one as I did! Your review of it is terrific...and I agree with it completely :) I can't wait for the next installment of this trilogy!

Book Dilettante said...

I stopped early in the novel. My excuse was that I did not like the way women were portrayed. but maybe he was being realistic and I didn't know the culture. Any thoughts on this?

Marie said...

Book Dillettante- what didn't you like about the way he portrayed the women?

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I love Ghosh but I've heard scary things about how hard the dialog is in this one!

mel u said...

Like you and others I was at first annoyed by all of the unfamiliar jargon as it slowed down my reading speed but as you read on that becomes a nonissue and it was actually fun to learn a lot of new expressions-I am very much looking forward to the next two installments of this book-great review

bermudaonion said...

This book sounds fascinating, but I think I'd have to find a time with very little distractions to tackle it. Maybe it would be good when Carl is out of town.

thekoolaidmom said...

I've seen this book at the library and found the cover mesmerizing. It sounds quite interesting, as well, and I'll have to check it out when I have a chance to read it :-)

jennysbooks said...

Yay! I love books set in India in this time period and I never know what one to read next. Hopefully I'll be able to manage the dialogue (she said anxiously).

Esme said...

I have an award for you.

jewwishes said...

Good review, Marie, and the book sounds compelling.

Zibilee said...

I have had my eye on this book for a very long time. I am glad to see this review and think that after reading your opinion, I am definitely going to be reading this book. I am also glad that you mention the language stew, because coming into that unaware might have put me off the book. I also didn't know that this was part one in a series. Great review, Marie. I am glad you ended up liking the book. I think I will too.

Dar said...

Nice review Marie. I've gone back and forth on buying this book so many times. I think I may buy it. I'm a little worried about that beginning but I'm sure I could get past that.

Esme said...

I love the cover of the Sea of Poppies-Please stop by for an award.

Esme said...

Sorry I am losing my mind and leaving you duplicate comments

bookmagic said...

This book has crossed my path from time to time and I've always been unsure. Now I know if I try it, not to be deterred by a slow start. Thanks for the review!

wisteria said...

Awesome review. I am so glad you said to hang in there, because I read Invasion for the ER program and the seafaring language really bothered me. I never did get used to it. Sea of Poppies looks much more promising. I will give it a go. Thanks Marie.

Booksnyc said...

thanks for the review! This is definitely on my TBR and I may read it for the South Asian Authors Challenge. I read The Glass Palace by Ghosh and loved it even though it was difficult early on.

Book Dilettante said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Book Dilettante said...

Marie, I'll have to go back and look at the book again, to be more specific. It's been a while since I first saw it.

Lorraine Douglas said...

Hi Marie...thanks for leaving the OY comment on The Complete Booker about "The Sea"....because it led me to your great blog. I will enjoy reading through it!

Amy said...

I have almost purchased this book once or twice but I thought it probably required time and focus from me and it wasn't a good time for me. But I definitely want to read the book and I was thrilled when I saw your review. It's wonderful and I loved your honesty! This sounds like a worthwhile book to read but I will be prepared to work at it a bit!
Such a beautiful cover, too!

Thank you!
~Amy