Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh
By John Day Barnett
Most historic stories focus on kings, queens, and other nobles – shying away from the everyday lives of typical citizens, serfs, servants, farmers, and commoners. It makes sense, often the drama and beauty of royal life seems stranger and more seductive than fiction.
In Sea of Poppies, the first book in The Ibis Trilogy – Amitav Ghosh ties together a story of characters from varying social, professional, and geographic backgrounds. There are surprising intimate moments, violent parts that are hard to read, and a large amount of language that seems to be from the mouth of pirates in a Disney movie.
Opium flows throughout the novel, as the title suggests. It touches almost everyone, from the highest reaches of society to those with nothing to their name. It drives much of the narrative, connecting the characters on land and at sea. It makes appearances in seemingly every fourth scene and pumps through seemingly every other character’s veins.
I found the dialogue best approached in the audiobook version, with an energetic reader voicing the characters in a way that breathed life into the work. It would have been hard to move through without skipping every other word since even in the spoken version I understood every couple of words.
If you’re a fan of history, the story is set in an interesting time in the history of India, especially considering the record of the British in the region. Globalization is in its infancy, and mainly focused on taking advantage of local farmers and merchants. Merchants rule – sometimes propping up local traditions and often creating industries and enforcing dominance with an iron fist.
Ghosh brings a humanity to the era from various perspectives and ethnicities in his first of three parts. It’s a book with love, loss, pain, reconnection, and adventure – and while it doesn’t come to a natural conclusion, it encourages you to reach for River of Smoke to see what happens next to the characters you will come to cheer for and others you will hate.
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