I read Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh because it was Grad’s absolute favorite book last year and she repeatedly raved about it. Grad being one smart woman I was curious about the book. And now I understand why Grad had so many glowing things to say about it.
You need to know that Sea of Poppies is the first book of a trilogy. This bit of information will keep you from being worried about the slow pace of the first two-thirds of the book. Ghosh spends that time creating a large cast of fascinating characters and firmly rooting us in Colonial India and the opium trade. The book is a lesson in the prejudice, the cruelty, the politics and economics that served the whites and eroded the well-being of the Indians. On the edges is the British trade with China, the British pretty much forcing their illegal opium into the Chinese market and even whispering about war when China starts to crack down.
The language was a bit difficult at first. There is quite a lot of pidgin English and shipboard slang to get used to. Sometimes the characters in the book didn’t understand each other either and the miscommunications produced humor as well as trouble.
I had been happily reading the book during my lunch breaks at work and on my short train commute. But when I got to the final third of the book last Friday and things started happening, I couldn’t wait for Monday and I finished the book in one big gulp Saturday evening. It has a cliffhanger ending but far from making me mad, as cliffhangers generally do, it served to make me want to read more. So I wait with excitement for book two.
What I really liked about the book was the characters. They were all so different and so interesting in their own ways. We know more about some than others, and we watch as a good many of them put on masks to hide who they really are. But there are some characters who, towards the end, begin to allow others to see behind the mask. As Paulette says to Zachary Reid:
‘Are not all appearances deceptive, in the end? Whatever there is within us – whether good, or bad, or neither – its existence will continue uninterrupted, will it not, no matter what the drape of our clothes, or the colour of our skin? What if it is the world that is a duperie, Mr. Reid, and we the exceptions to its lies?’
The quote makes it sound like there is moralizing, but there is nothing of the sort. This is pretty much the only thing said on the subject and it comes very late in the book and by that point, if you have been reading carefully, Paulette is just saying what you already know.
Somehow I don’t feel like I have given the book any sort of justice. There isn’t really a plot, though things happen. Lots of things happen. But this book is all about the characters, well drawn and varied. I am really interested to see what Ghosh does with the second book, whether it will have more plot since the setting and characters are already established. I’ll have to wait and see.