I just finished the Man Booker-Shortlisted and British Book Design and Production Award-Shortlisted novel Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh. Wow.  The skill with which this author writes is just breath-taking.  The story is set in 19th Century India and on the high seas, centering on a group of incredibly diverse characters drawn together one way or another on board a ship called The Ibis.  The opium trade is at the heart of the plot and it is one of those fantastic historical novels which manages to teach you something at the same time – I had never before realised, for some reason, that a lot of the British Empire’s Opium was grown and manufactured in India and then exported to China, having somehow assumed it was an exclusively Chinese trade.  I also learnt something about the transportation of indentured migrant workers from India to Mauritius – although I knew that Mauritius had a strongly Indian background, I had never really thought about why.

Rather like Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, (which is probably the longest single book I’ve ever read, but is riveting nevertheless), Ghosh’s technique of switching between different characters and his skill in fleshing out their personalities so that you have a fully living, breathing, amimated cast of characters rather than only one or two fully developed main characters, ensures that we get a sweeping insight into 19th century Indian and Colonial life.  The characters come from all works of life: a mulatto freed-man from Baltimore working as a sailor, a Raj toppled by an unscrupulous English businessman, a poor poppy farmer escaping the clutches of her brother-in-law after the death of her opium addict husband, an enterprising young French-woman who has grown up with India as her motherland, and many more.

One of the ways Ghosh manages to make his cast so vivid is through his imaginative use of language.  Each of the characters has a distinctive voice, shot through with personal idiosyncracies and Indo-English slang.  The misunderstandings that arise from the mutual incomprehension of the different characters makes for a great deal of humour alongside the darker themes arising from the historical setting.  To give a couple of examples:

” ‘Puggly, tell me the truth, I conjure you: there isn’t a rootie in the choola, is there?’

‘Why, Madame…’

Paulette was a little surprised to see Mrs Burnham making such a to-do about a matter she usually touched upon so lightly – but she was glad, too, to have the conversation turned in this new direction, since it presented a good opportunity for escape.  Hugging her stomach, she made a moaning sound: ‘Madame, you are perfectly right: I am indeed a little foireuse today.’

‘Oh dear, dear Puggly!’ The BeeBee dabbed her streaming eyes and gave Paulette a pitying hug.  ‘Of course you’re furious! Those budzat sailors! With all their udlee-budlee, you’d think they’d leave the larkins alone!’ ”

“He paused to give Zachary a broad wink. ‘From what I hear, the Rascal’s going to be in for a samjaoing soon enough.  The kubber is that his cuzzanah is running out.’

Zachary could no longer sustain the pretence of omniscience.  Knitting his eyebrows, he said: ‘Cu – cuzzanah? Now there you go again, Mr Doughty: that’s another word I don’t know the meaning of.’ ”

Ghosh spends a lot of the book – and it’s not a short book – setting the scene, introducing the characters and slowly weaving them all together.  The second half of the book therefore felt much faster-paced, and ended quite abruptly: I have to admit, after the time spent building everything up, I felt the culmination of the action was almost too rushed.  However, I just found out that it is in fact the first of a planned trilogy, so I just have to wait for the second one to come out!  Ghosh has invested so much in the characters that you are definitely left wanting to know what happens to them next!

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