Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke

This year, I'm not going to put off recording titles until I get a chance to respond to them thoughtfully because I've learned that may never happen. Instead, I'll give a few quick impressions when I can, sometimes just note a title completed, and occasionally, if I find time, write a fuller response or transcribe a favourite passage. And I'm always thrilled to have a reader comment, perhaps beginning a dialogue about something we've both read.

So to begin as I mean to go on, I've already finished a few titles. First up, Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke, second in a planned trilogy that began with his captivating Sea of Poppies.  If you have a limited understanding of British imperialism, particularly in the East, these two novels will shock you. Even those who know something of British mercantile responsibility for widespread opium trade may be disturbed by the damages inflicted on India and China's people by a country so proud of its laws and morality. That might sound as if the books proselytize, but this is not the case. Likeable characters abound, and even the unlikeable ones entertain.

And perhaps the most entertaining character of all is the English language, if English it can still be called after it has been stretched into the most astounding, rollicking shapes by the influences of the Indian sub-continent and even of the more limited interactions with the Chinese.

River of Smoke picks up with several of the characters we met in Sea of Poppies, in landscapes and seascapes full of adventure and intrigue. This second novel in the series moves from India to China where opium merchants are hoping to wait out the Emperor's determination to halt the destructive trade. Cross-cultural friendships; political manoeuvering; sea-roving collectors-- including a cross-dressing orphaned young woman--seeking botanic treasures; hearty, exotic meals described to evoke drooling; a love story staged on a colourful houseboat; a wonderful series of letters drawing every possible sexual pun out of a friendship built around drawing and painting lessons.  . . thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining while being admirably instructive.  I'm looking forward to seeing where the third novel takes me. Meanwhile, if you get a chance, I'd recommend reading these first two.


  1. I had a hard time getting into Sea of Poppies on paper because I was bogged down by the language games. I might try this one on audio instead.

  2. We both liked it here, but my daughters (both strong readers) found it hard to get into as well. Audio might be a good approach to get caught up in the rhythm of the colourful language. It's well worth sticking with, but it's not a real page-turner 'til later. Let me know if you do get back into it.

  3. I read Sea of Poppies a couple years back but haven't gotten around to the second installment. I'm terrible for starting and then forgetting about series. I should really read this. Nice write-up.

  4. Thanks for taking time to comment, Ryan. I think you'd enjoy this 2nd book in Ghosh's intended trilogy. I'd also recommend any of his earlier novels, The Shadow Lines especially.