Wednesday, September 22, 2010

SEA OF POPPIES by Amitav Ghosh

My reading of this book was a long and arduous task, partly due to the zillions of foreign and slang words. (There's a dictionary at the back, but almost all of the words I looked up were not there.) The story has potential, with a group of diverse characters having been thrown together in one place, like Bel Canto. In this case, the place is the Ibis, a ship sailing from Calcutta to Mauritius in the early 1800s. However, the ship doesn't sail until about three-quarters of the way through the book, giving us a chance to become well acquainted with the main characters before the debarkation. Deeti is married to an opium addict, and Kalua is a cart driver who helps Deeti escape her evil in-laws after her husband dies. Neel is an aristocrat on the brink of bankruptcy who can't fathom the lengths to which his creditor will go to acquire his lands. Pauline is the orphaned daughter of a botanist, whose childhood friend Jodu has secured a position as a crew member on the Ibis. The American Zachary Reid, whose mother was a quadroon freedwoman, is the second mate of the Ibis, and there's a budding love story between him and Pauline. For reasons unrelated to her feelings for Zachary, Pauline will stop at nothing to somehow join this voyage. Perhaps the most exasperating aspect of this book is that it is intended as the first episode in a trilogy. As such, the ending is a teaser that left me wondering why I had bothered, because I'm not sure I can wade through two more books like it. The story does transport the reader to another place and time, but it progresses at a snail's pace, evocative of the effect of opium, India's cash crop of the day, at least until its export to China is banned by the government. The theme that seems to pervade the book is the injustice of not only the caste system but racial prejudice in general, and how power atop the perceived hierarchy is used to keep those at the lower rungs of the ladder in their place. There's an interesting reverse-discrimination scene near the end where the lowlife 2nd mate, Mr. Crowle, drops his intense dislike for Zachary and tries to recruit him for a coup, when he finds that Zachary has African blood. Also, who knew that "canvas," originally woven from hemp to make sails, is a derivation of the word "cannabis"?
Amazon: 4 stars (105 reviews)
Barnes & Noble: 3.5 stars (31 reviews)

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