73 of 75 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Energetic, ambitious and immensely moving......
Another tremendous piece of storytelling from Ghosh. In Sea of Poppies he brings together a disparate group of characters who all find themselves aboard the Ibis as she sails from the Hoogly River in Calcutta to Mauritius in the 1830s. The Ibis is a "blackbirder" - a ship previously used as part of the slave trade and is now used to transport opium and other supplies to...
Published on 15 May 2009 by Wynne Kelly
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good but disappointing end
It took me a relatively long time to get into this book, ie until about 1/3 of the way through it. Then I became engrossed and couldn't put it down until the end. What made me not want to put it down, however, was that all the way through there were references as to how the journey ends for the characters, and I became more and more curious to find out what would happen...
Published on 20 Sep 2009 by Eenymo
Most Helpful First | Newest First
73 of 75 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Energetic, ambitious and immensely moving......,
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Another tremendous piece of storytelling from Ghosh. In Sea of Poppies he brings together a disparate group of characters who all find themselves aboard the Ibis as she sails from the Hoogly River in Calcutta to Mauritius in the 1830s. The Ibis is a "blackbirder" - a ship previously used as part of the slave trade and is now used to transport opium and other supplies to China. But with the Opium Wars looming it is decided to use the ship to take indentured labourers to Mauritius.
The opium trade is brilliantly researched and shows us the devastating effect it has on the peasants forced to grow poppies rather than food. Class and caste issues loom large throughout in a society where everyone knows where they stand in the pecking order. Only on the Ibis does this hierarchy break down as the passengers realise that they are (literally) all in the same boat.
The narrative moves swiftly and rarely slackens. The story culminates in a real cliffhanger and leaves the reader wanting to know what will happen next. (Sea of Poppies is the first part of a trilogy). The characterisations are strong and vivid although I do feel that some of the things that happen are somewhat far-fetched!
Much of the dialogue is bold and bawdy and uses lots of Anglo-Indian and Hindustani terms. This added to the rich brew of this novel although I can understand that others may find it irritating.
An energetic, ambitious and immensely moving book.
75 of 78 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Addictive, as in the title,
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I was attracted to buy this book through prior knowledge of the author, an interest in India and its history, and a professional interest in the subject of the title. Recognising that this was volume 1 of a trilogy, I realised there would be a lot of scene setting with characters establishing themselves. I thought this might be heavy going but I was wrong. I enjoyed the stories and the backgrounds that lead to them all being on the ship, the Ibis on their way to Mauritius. Throughout this wafted the sheer unpleasantness of life, the smells, the violence, the prejudice and the struggles that so many had had to overcome. Inevitably the main characters stand out as survivors with hidden depths that emerge over time. Perhaps a bit 2 dimensional as this stage.
Amitav Ghosh has done a huge amount of research into the background of life 200 years ago in India and this is reflected in the use of the vernacular languages of the time - seafaring talk, colonial English, a multitude of Indian words etc. On the one hand this was difficult to manage at first and I kept looking for a glossary (it would need to have been about 20 pages!). However, as I got used to it I found myself able to understand a lot more. My lack of understanding often matched the characters lack of comprehension of what was being said to them. Overall this mixture of language added to the flavour of the book but could be off-putting some.
It was a fast, engrossing read for me, with an unexpected cliff-hanger at the end and I am looking forward to the next instalment. I recommend it.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good but disappointing end,
It took me a relatively long time to get into this book, ie until about 1/3 of the way through it. Then I became engrossed and couldn't put it down until the end. What made me not want to put it down, however, was that all the way through there were references as to how the journey ends for the characters, and I became more and more curious to find out what would happen to them. But, really disappointingly, by the end of the book you are no further forward as to how the characters' story ends! Having read a couple of the reviews on here I have since found out it is the first of a series to come...Although I will now look out for the next book, I was left with a very disappointed feeling having reached the end.
Another thing which I found frustrating about it was not being able to understand the language used by some of the characters, and found myself quite frustrated at not being able to understand a lot of what they were all saying throughout the book (although you can guess some of it, I had to just give up trying to guess a lot of it and skip over whole sentences).
All in all I thought it was a good story, apart from these 2 things which I found really annoying.
If you are the kind of person who likes to know the end of a story instead of being left wondering, I wouldn't recommend this book until the sequels have all been published, so that you can get them straight away afterwards...
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Stage setter,
This review is from: Sea of Poppies (Hardcover)
There are many very good reviews on this book already. My take on it? I liked it enough to be on the look out for part 2 in the trilogy, but that is also its main setback. On the whole, this first book is too much of a 'stage setter'. It doesn't feel very much as a finished work, but as a beautifully crafted door to an as yet unfinished building.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars children of the ship,
The last sea-faring trilogy I read was William Golding's To The Ends Of The Earth (made up of Rites of Passage, Close Quarters and Fire Down Below). Ok, it's the only sea-faring trilogy I've read but I really enjoyed it. Sacred Hunger, which shared the Booker Prize in 1992 with Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (what a year!), is another fantastic maritime narrative so I had high hopes for the first instalment of Amitav Ghosh's projected trilogy; would I be left in the doldrums or with wind in my sails?
The setting is an interesting one: the Indian subcontinent in the 1830's finds the British East India Company exerting their influence through the trade in opium. Ghosh shows us the effects of this trade immediately through Deeti whose husband, as well as working in the local opium factory, is also an acknowledged addict or 'afeemkhor'. In a great set piece we are guided through the processing of opium as a distressed Deeti runs through the factory to find her husband. Soon she is widowed and in order to avoid the attentions of her brother in law is prepared to place herself on her husband's funeral pyre. It is a fate she will be rescued from and as she and her rescuer Kalua, a gentle giant, run from the pursuing funeral party they become the first of many who find themselves heading towards a ship, the Ibis.
Ghosh assembles a varied cast covering the wide spectrum of nationalities, castes and background that his colonial setting provides. A fallen aristocrat, an opium addict and a freed slave are just a few of the characters whose fate is tied up with the Ibis and the slow, inevitable progress of the characters towards her is like the flowing of tributaries into a river, growing and developing as they move until combined, they head out together to sea.
The Ibis is as strong a character as any of its passengers. Appearing first in a vision, Deeti sees it as an animal, a bird in flight, later the hold of the ship seems like a cave, the hammocks strung across it appearing like cobwebs. The ship is known as a 'blackbirder' having been used as a slave ship and it is a human cargo for her again at this time of tension with China and the constraints that places on the trade in opium. Most of those on board are going to the island of Mauritius as indentured labourers, the differences between them as regards caste or culture dissolved by their predicament. The women are the first to articulate their new status.
'...from now on there are no differences between us, we are jahaz-bhai and jahaz-bahen to each other; all of us children of the ship.'
That short extract gives you a taste of the exotic language employed. The wealth of research condensed into Michael Chabon's 'Gentlemen Of The Road' lead to the text groaning under the weight of obsolete words. But given the scale of this novel Ghosh's peppering of the text with exotica, whilst at first creating a disorienting effect similar to reading the nadsat language invented by Anthony Burgess for his teenagers in A Clockwork Orange, slowly grows into a rich and exciting language of the period and in particular the language of those that live on the water.
'From the silmagoors who sat on the ghats, sewing sails, Jodu had learnt the names of each piece of canvas, in English and in Laskari- that motley tongue, spoken nowhere but on the water, whose words were as varied as the port's traffic, an anarchic medley of Portugese caluzes and Kerala pattimars, Arab booms and Bengal paunchways, Malay proas and Tamil catamarans, Hindusthani pulwars and English snows - yet beneath the surface of this farrago of sound, meaning flowed as freely as the currents beneath the crowded press of boats.'
The ship's first mate Crowle has a true sailor's vocabulary ('Pander, y'spigot-sucking gobble-prick. With all the wide welkin around us, why d'ye always have to be beating the booby right here?). The man he's speaking to there, Baboo Nob Kissin (whose name is enough to raise a smirk I'm afraid) has the kind of broken English perfect for double entendre but flirts dangerously with the 'Yoda' problem, where disordered syntax can make it all sound a little ridiculous. But with such a broad pallet Ghosh is able to show the full range of diversity on board with differences in class, caste or station indicated by the words or language used to communicate.
As befits a novel of this scale we are able to look at the wider world. The period is perfect territory for a view on the politics of colonialism, trade and that notion of freedom which is so tested in an era where slavery is coming to an end only to be replaced by the subjugation of people through addiction. It is a place from which we can look both backwards and forwards of course and it is this ability which means the writing has not only a historical significance but a resonance for the times we live in now.
'The truth is, sir, that men do what their power permits them to do. We are no different from the Pharaos or the Mongols, the difference is only that when we kill people we feel compelled to pretend that it is for some higher cause. It is this presence of virtue, I promise you, that will never be forgiven by history.'
It is that which means that the Ibis trilogy could be not just fantastic storytelling but an important comment on our history.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Novel to Savour,
The first thing to know about 'The Sea of Poppies' is that it's the first volume of a trilogy. Should you be the sort of person who dives straight into the narrative, without looking at the review quotes, this is far from obvious. This volume ends with a cliffhanger, and after the considerable emotional investment Ghosh demands from his readers, some people may be left frustrated at the lack of conclusion. With no prospect of a second volume any time soon, you may wish to wait a while before picking up this fabulous but demanding novel.
This is the third Ghosh novel I have read, all of them have been wonderful, but I had forgotten, that for both the previous books, I struggled to find my way in. For 'Sea of Poppies' the same is true, only more so. Ghosh likes to use a disparate selection of characters, from wildly varying backgrounds, that he gradually binds together as the story unfolds. This makes the opening of his novels feel disjointed, and I find it hard to build up any momentum when reading them. For 'SOP' this was doubly the case - a number of characters speak in dialect or pidgin, which at times I found almost impenetrable.
After a difficult opening third, the novel settles down; the major characters begin to interact with one another, and the difficult to read pidgin sequences become less frequent. But this is not the end of the linguistic gymnastics. Ghosh is clearly a master of language, and he uses the melting pot of 1830's India, to construct many wonderful jokes and double meanings from the various languages used by his characters. Unfortunately, I was reading 'SOP' for my book group, and hadn't allowed enough time to do this linguistic trickery justice. I ended up reading in something of a rush. This is a novel that delivers more to a careful reader, so take your time in order to fully enjoy the brilliance of Ghosh's wordplay.
'Sea of Poppies' is crammed full of themes and images, but it's the absurdity of the caste system, and the ignorant bigotry of the British that comes under closest scrutiny. Ghosh clearly has little time for either. By using almost Shakespearean levels of disguise and misdirection, the author shows that beneath veneer we construct to protect ourselves, and no matter how we label those we do not understand, humankind is essentially the same - vulnerable and capable of great compassion.
This is a vital piece of fiction crammed full of memorable and idiosyncratic characters. It is marred only by a difficult opening and the lack of a coherent conclusion. The tantalising ending has left me begging for more, I just hope I don't have to wait too long for it.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engrossing story,
This is a truly engrossing historical novel that starts out in India of the 1830s, against the background of the opium trade between the East India Co. and China.The first part of a trilogy, the novel tells the story of how a variety of people come to find themselves on a ship, the IBIS, and of the events on board just as it is starting out on its voyage.But is more than that.Ghosh brings the India of the 1830s alive with vivid descriptions of Calcutta as it was called then, the lives of those who lives there, whether poor boatmen, rich landlords, peaeant farmers and their wives or ruthless British businessmen. Food, religion, tradition, racism and castes and their impact on lives are a central part of the book. Of particular interest is the lascars who man the ship and the language they use which is essentail in giving the book a sense of authenticity.
This is a great read and I cant wait for next installemnt.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Promising Start...,
Fundamental to appreciating this novel is seeing it as the first book in a trilogy, if you are buying it as a standalone, you're not going to be impressed with the pacing, structure or ending. It's certainly not evident in my copy, unless you read the bio or the reviews at the front, that this is the case - though in the future, no doubt, it will be well known as the first book of the Ibis Trilogy. Trilogies aren't found that often in contemporary fiction, outside of the fantasy/SF genres, and readers aren't "used" to reading them, hence for many the novel is disjointed; the "jumping" from one set of characters to another is frustrating; and the lack of a resolution is annoying. Approaching Sea of Poppies as being part of a much larger whole is essential to being able to thoroughly enjoy it.
The book is comfortably divided into 3 parts: The Land, The River and The Sea. Each part is subdivided into chapters and each chapter is further sectioned, through asterisks, into the lives and events of particular characters. In the first part we are introduced to the bulk of the characters and Deeti's vision of the "tall-masted ship, at sail on the ocean" opens the novel, introduces a sense of destiny, and sets the scene. India, the early 1830s, and the East India Trading Company has been established to export huge amounts of opium to China. Indian peasants, such as Deeti and her opium-addicted husband, are forced to farm poppies for the trade. Zachary Reid is the son of a former American slave and her white master, and although his skin is white, he is still labelled "black" - he is bright and able and soon rises through the shipboard ranks with help from Serang Ali, who heads up the Asian crew of the Ibis. Neel Rattan is a Raja, with lands, luxury, wife, son and mistress, but whose lifestyle is about to be changed forever. The British Mr Burnham has made his money as an opium trader and is greedy, and puritanical. He takes on a young ward, Paulette Lambert, whose early upbringing with the young Indian son of her nurse, Jodu, is highly unconventional. Baboo Nob Kissin (whose name provides an occasional source of amusement) is one of the oddest and most humorous characters, who believes Zachary to be the reincarnation of Krishna, and feels his body is being taken over by that of a dead woman.
Sea of Poppies follows the lives of these characters, and others, who will find themselves passengers on a journey that will take them far away from everything they have known. Once their stories begin to coalesce, ironically as many of their lives are irrevocably changed, the novel's pace picks up momentum. The first two parts of the novel, spent immersed in character development, sets up the final section's rush of mishap and mayhem, and the reader's investment is repaid with drama, fear and excitement.
Amitav Ghosh's novel, like its characters, refuses to be pinned down; it is part high-adventure story, part historical novel, part literary fiction. It is awash with symbolism: water representative of recurrent themes of flux and disconnection. Many of the characters have multiple identities, or are disguised, whilst the society they inhabit functions on laws of hierarchy and caste that seek to label and pigeonhole: a dichotomy that pervades the story. And perhaps the hotchpotch of language/s, that ARE difficult, confusing, annoying, frustrating, more aptly demonstrates this great diversity of human characters than any other single aspect of the novel.
Ultimately this book might not be best judged or reviewed by itself, and those who come later with the benefit of having the whole finished trilogy behind them, might be better placed to comment. However, having read it, and having been drawn into its depths, and feeling that I DO care; it feels quite heady to be here, now, waiting for the next instalment.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars almost stunning...,
There is an incredible amount of knowledge to gain from this book aside from it being an entertaining novel. The harsh and primitive nature of the caste system amongst its poor of the day, the stark reminder of the selfishness of the British Empire's opium trade and its hugely damaging local, national and international effects, the raw racism that existed in less enlightened times between those of fair skin and those born of darker hues, the barriers placed up to people irrespective of their inate talent but due to their quirk of birth...
However, I have no stomach to read the next part - the language - the sea-faring slang, the pidgin English, the locals' terminology - makes this a frustrating read, where a stunningly researched and thought-out and intricate novel gets lost in a maze of b'henchods and paltans. Hard work...
it is however just worth the effort, as you will come out the end with memorable images, and a brutal history lesson on how evil men can be to other men and their actions be condoned by the greater part of their society...
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gorgeous language but hard work until you get used to it,
The vocabulary is absolutely beautiful in this book. I did not understand many of the words that are used but, put together the way they are, the story seems to create an atmosphere which is exotic and mysterious.
As with any unfamiliar use of language, the more you read it, the more you understand and, quickly, the unusual words became a major part of the storytelling.
The disadvantage of the language is that the book did take a long time to read as I had to concentrate quite hard - I felt that I wanted to be swept along more quickly with the story.
I understand that this is the first book in a trilogy. It does have the feeling of the beginning of a journey (or an unfinished story?) and I look forward to reading more about these characters. Looking back, I would rather not have known that it was the first on a series as I do like to be left with unanswered questions, whereas I guess that the next book will just pick up where it stopped.
The Glass Palace, by this author, is one of my favourite books and this was not as good but still was a lovely read.
Most Helpful First | Newest First
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh (Hardcover - 1 May 2008)
Used & New from: £0.01