four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
By: 
Amitav Ghosh
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
0

A-Sea of PoppiesIndian novelist Amitav Ghosh (The Glass Palace, The Hungry Tide) puts his former training as an anthropologist and historian to good use as he evokes rich period detail in his latest work. The first in a projected trilogy, this historical novel was short-listed for the 2008 Man Booker Prize.

The Story: The Story: In 1838, the eve of the Opium Wars, international tensions run high as a motley band of passengers embark on the Ibis, an indentured-labor ship owned by the tyrannical British merchant Benjamin Burnham and on its way to Mauritius. Among the passengers are Deeti, an Indian widow who narrowly escaped her husband’s funeral pyre, and her lover Kalua; Raja Neel Rattan, a bankrupt landowner; Zachary Reid, Burnham’s American second mate, who hides his mulatto heritage from his racist crew members; and Paulette, a spirited French stowaway. As the Ibis sets sail from Calcutta to deliver its human cargo to faraway factories and fields, unlikely bonds form across race, caste, and nationality that will transform everyone on board.
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. 528 pages. $26. ISBN: 0374174229

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Sea is marvelous, its range and authority astonishing. … Philosophically rich, exuberantly written, Sea of Poppies expands the mind and quickens the heart." Carlo Wolff

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Not only does his exact historical inquiry blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction, but also the intricacy with which he meshes diverse tongues to come up with an eccentric pidgin is truly ingenious. … Sea of Poppies is a veritable cauldron of energy intermingling with craft." Vikram Johri

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Ghosh’s new novel bears the hallmarks of his best fiction—an evocative, scholarly recreation of a historical period and a painstaking attention to social and economic detail that reflects his training as a social anthropologist. … But unlike Ghosh’s last two worthy but somewhat labored efforts (The Glass Palace, The Hungry Tide) Sea of Poppies does not sacrifice narrative and character to research." Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"The cast of characters is vast, and at the same time each person stands out as sharply rendered and dramatically urgent. … Yes, the plot is dense, if not thick, and the book builds slowly. But every page you turn is worth it." Alan Cheuse

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"His well-researched details of life in 19th-century India reincarnate this misplaced piece of history, from the humble mud-walled rural homes and vivid streets of Calcutta to the underlying political tensions and collision of values and morality. … Besides a complexity of language and characters, Ghosh creates a plot of epic proportions with frequent foreshadowing that leaves no doubt its 500-plus pages are only the beginning." Don Oldenburg

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"His descriptions bring a lost world to life, from the evocatively imagined opium factory, the intricacies of women’s costumes and the lovingly enumerated fare on the opulent dining tables of the era, to the richly detailed descriptions of the Ibis and its journey. At times, Sea of Poppies reads like a cross between an Indian Gone with the Wind and a Victorian novel of manners." Shashi Tharoor

Wall Street Journal 2 of 5 Stars
"The novel falls short of the praise heaped on it, weighted down by the burden of Mr. Ghosh’s anticolonial sermonizing. … Unfortunately, Sea of Poppies is roped with enough storylines to rig a four-masted schooner and populated by so many characters that you need a manifest to keep track of them." Abheek Bhattacharya

Critical Summary

In his sixth novel, Amitav Ghosh observes the pervasive effects of colonialism through the daily trials and discordant inner lives of his large, diverse cast of characters. Though the reviewer from the Wall Street Journal objected to the overt political message and convoluted plot, most critics praised this lush and evocative novel, filled with vivid details of life in 19th-century India. Ghosh’s vibrant prose radiates compassion and empathy for his characters and ingeniously recreates the Anglo-Indian pidgin they would have spoken. (Readers may find the frequent foreign words distracting, but a glossary is provided.) The first installment in a projected trilogy, Sea of Poppies ends just as the Ibis’s voyage begins, having spent most of its 500-plus pages in exposition. But Ghosh’s epic, ambitious vision will keep readers riveted.