Tuesday, October 11, 2011

REVIEW: River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh

River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh. Published 2011 by FSG. Literary Fiction.

If you read Sea of Poppies and loved it as much as I did, you've been waiting with baited breath for two long years for the follow-up to that wonderful book with its dramatic cliff-hanger ending. It's here; dive right in.

River of Smoke doesn't pick up exactly where Sea of Poppies left off, but Ghosh circles back around soon enough. In the mean time, we meet some new people who figure into Ghosh's vast, 19th-century style epic of the Asian opium trade. Bahram Moddie is a rich and respected self-made entrepreneur who started his opium business to assert his independence from the wealthy family he married into, a family for whom Bahram has never been quite good enough. Bahram is taking a particularly large and important shipment into China as the book opens. Frederick Penrose is a horticulturist voyaging to China to collect a legendary golden chrysanthemum, aided by plucky Paulette Lambert, the French orphan we met first in Sea of Poppies. Robin Chinnery is her childhood friend, a flamboyant artist and man-about-town who sends her detailed and chatty letters about the goings-on among the foreigners in Canton, where the action is centered.

Several characters from Sea of Poppies reappear in River of Smoke;  Neel, the lawyer convicted of forgery and imprisoned with Ah-Fett, finds work with Bahram, who is tied to Ah-Fett as well. The novel starts with Deeti, albeit in the far future. Mention is made of Zachary, Paulette's friend, and other minor characters as well. Paulette comes in and out of the story; she is my favorite character in the epic so far and my own quibble with the book is that we don't spend enough time with her.

But that's really my only quibble. I think I loved this book even more than Sea of Poppies. For one thing, it's a lot more accessible; there's a lot less of the colorful linguistic stew that made Sea of Poppies both vibrant and challenging. The cast of characters is smaller and we get to know them in more depth. Bahram Moddie in particular is a complex, multifaceted man we see from many points of view; his fate is the saddest I've come across in a while.

River of Smoke is the middle book in the Ibis trilogy, and I do think it helps to have read Sea of Poppies. I know some people will try to sell it to you as a stand-alone but it's not. I'm going to be fascinated to see how Ghosh is going to wrap it all up in book three. Presumably he'll bring back the characters from the first book not central here and tie their fates together. I can't wait.

Reading River of Smoke is like taking a course in early 19th century Cantonese history. Set just before the Opium Wars of 1839-1842, the amount of detail Ghosh rounded up for this book is staggering. I can't imagine all the research he must have done on the food, clothing, customs, geography and cultural life and political history of the era. And he brings it all together so brilliantly with these characters that just grip the reader. Most of the historical fiction I've read set in the 19th century has been set in Europe and I can't overstate how fascinated I was to learn about the economics and bustling diversity of the Far East of that time. Top that off with the engrossing plot, heartrending characters, humor, pathos and suspense and you've got a must-read literary gem. I've got two and a half more months of reading ahead of me in 2011 and some big books to come, but it's hard to see how anything is going to beat River of Smoke as my favorite book of the year.

Rating: BUY, BUY, BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from FSG.