Amitav Ghosh: Sea of Poppies

One of the many good things about reading Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies during my run through the Man Booker Prize 2008 longlist, was that for once I was not in trouble for leaving it lying around the house as I was reading. Indeed Mrs Self positively welcomed the presence of the book – easily the most handsomely produced of this year’s Booker titles – on the quite sensible grounds that it went well with our hall table. As it happens, this notion of the book as a sort of intellectual scatter cushion is probably not far off the mark.

Sea of Poppies, as we might guess from the title and cover, is a book on a boat – the vehicle for the plot being the Ibis, a former ‘blackbirder’ or slave transporter, and with her “unusually graceful … yacht-like rigging, she might put someone in mind of a bird in flight.” But the reputation of her bad management precedes her, and “when the schooner put into Cape Town the crew melted away overnight, to spread word of a hell-afloat with pinch-gut pay.” All this is very convenient as it enables Ghosh to repopulate the ship with new crew members, just as the idea of a ship is a handy one for any novelist, as an opportunity to bring together disparate characters for clashes and collusion.

Now the Ibis is part of the opium trade, controlled in the 1830s by the British in the East India Company, and sweeping away everything in its path, such as less profitable crops. “Everyone’s land was in hock to the agents of the opium factory: every farmer had been served with a contract, the fulfilling of which left them with no option but to strew their land with poppies.” Caught up in this are central characters such as Deeti, caught in an unhappy marriage, and who discovers the power of opium when she begins to use it to sedate her troublesome mother-in-law:

The more she ministered the drug, the more she came to respect its potency: how frail a creature was a human being, to be tamed by such tiny doses of this substance! She saw now why the factory in Ghazipur was so diligently patrolled by the sahibs and their sepoys – for if a little bit of this gum could give her such power over the life, the character, the very soul of this elderly woman, then with more of it at her disposal, why should she not be able to seize kingdoms and control multitudes?

Controlling multitudes is at the heart of the book: Zachary Reid, American sailor, is caught up in it as he takes a job on board the ship; even the local aristocracy such as Neel, the Raja of Raskhali, are in hock to the likes of Benjamin Burnham, businessman and new owner of the Ibis, whose “eyes still had the brilliant, well-focused sparkle that comes from never looking in any direction other than ahead.” He has no time for progressive ideas which stand in the way of his own progress. The Chinese are trying to stop the trade of opium into their country, so:

‘Till then, this vessel is going to do just the kind of work she was intended for.’

The suggestion startled Zachary. ‘D’you mean use her as a slaver, sir? But have not your English laws outlawed that trade?’

‘That is true,’ Mr Burnham nodded. ‘Yes, indeed they have, Reid. It’s sad but true that there are many who’ll stop at nothing to halt the march of human freedom.’

‘Freedom, sir?’ said Zachary, wondering if he had misheard.

His doubts were quickly put at rest. ‘Freedom, yes, exactly,’ said Mr Burnham. ‘Isn’t that what the mastery of the white man means for the lesser races? As I see it, Reid, the Africa trade was the greatest exercise in freedom since God led the children of Israel out of Egypt. Consider, Reid, the situation of a so-called slave in the Carolinas – is he not more free than his brethren in Africa, groaning under the rule of some dark tyrant?’

And so Ghosh sets his characters – these and a half-dozen more besides are handled in sympathetic detail – in motion on the ocean, though in fact the ship doesn’t reach the sea until page 325. This tells us – indeed, the about the author flap tells us – that Sea of Poppies is the first in a trilogy, though we might have known that anyway from the way the stories are still expanding as page 400 comes and goes. However Ghosh is experienced enough to give us a satisying enough conclusion to this volume, with violence, death, blackmail and reversals all in the last few chapters.

It is Ghosh’s experience – this is his seventh novel – which sets Sea of Poppies above most of the Booker Prize longlist titles I’ve read so far. There is expertise in the style – teeming with detail and flooded with characters, but not dense or forbidding, and exoticised with plenty of words the reader cannot be expected (and doesn’t need) to understand. It is not a comic book, but there are scenes which achieve something akin to humour through sheer force of verve and brio, and long satisfying confrontations between characters which speed the reading along nicely. All in all Ghosh’s telling is a full-blooded, full-colour epic voyage in itself, at almost 500 pages of tightly-written prose. The subject matter, of the ripples of addictive effects both of opium and its trade, does not give rise to unexpected conclusions, and not all the characters are fattened out beyond two dimensions. Part of me, too, thinks that people should stop writing novels as they were written two hundred years ago. But there is no denying – indeed, in this year’s dismal Booker longlist, it’s cause for celebration – that Sea of Poppies is a great fat satisfying entertainment, which would pass a long voyage very nicely indeed.


  1. This sounds like a book I would very much enjoy. I did pick it up in a bookstore before it got long-listed but ended up opting for something else. I was attracted to the cover for a start (I love a good poppy…. or a tulip), which is just me being shallow again. But I also adore books set on ships — Star of the Sea, Sacred Hunger, English Passengers — so this one is definitely going on my MUST read list.

  2. I’ve read a couple of his novels. I get the sense that his project is to really delineate how history, and in partcular, colonial history in Asia, affects lives today, how the present is shaped by that era. These are massive themes he deals with, and in this work, as you explain, no less than the recovery of the role that colonial powers played in the opium trade, and how effectively under the rubric of the East India Company Britain was a nation-state drug dealer, and India became her poppy field, is the canvas upon which he paints. What Ghosh achieves is to bring individual experiences under these pressures of history and exploitation to life. When you weigh his ambition with his achievment his impressiveness as an author is manifest. I am tempted to read this book.

  3. I agree this is a beautiful looking book as you have photographed it. If I am going to get it, I may have to lash out on the hardcover version. You have certainly inspired me to at lease consider reading this novel but my past experience with Ghosh holds me back – I didn’t finish The Glass Palace and was not enthused by The Hungry Tide, however if you say it tops your Booker shortlist so far that is very strong praise indeed.

  4. I am sad to say this book does not sound like one I want to read – simply due to the subject matter. I have now given up completely on the Mangos. I got halfway and couldn’t take anymore. I have just begun Rushdie and am loving him but I see over at Dovegrey that it could be disappointing. That would be a first for me. I have loved every Rushdie book I have read.

    I am very grateful to you for weeding out the chaff from the wheat. I wish I could read the above but am not interested.

  5. I recently read Joseph O’Connor’s The Star of the Sea and it was written in the style of Dickens?

    Did Ghosh give a little summary at the beginning of each chapter?

    I haven’t read a fictional account of the opium trade and the role that the East India Company played in it.

  6. Well this is certainly my favourite title of the longlist so far, though I’m still unsure whether I would have read it to the end if I had picked it up at random. Oddly, I had a prejudice against Ghosh before reading it, that he was obscure and difficult – based, as all prejudices are, on very little evidence, in this case the comments of a friend years ago about The Glass Palace – but it’s not like that at all. As a Dickensian epic, it’s rather better than the other Dickens-related book on the longlist, which I’ll post on tomorrow.

    Candy, I understand your antipathy to Mangoes. I enjoyed it to begin with, but now I’m struggling to think of anything to say about it.

  7. Well John, I finished the Enchantress in one sitting and I can’t understand why some find Rushdie daunting. I have always loved his books and this one is the best of those I have read. He is witty and thought provoking and fantastical. What more could anyone want? I await several more longlist titles including Netherland. Please say something about the Mangoes. I would like to understand what makes a book get on the longlist in the first place. Thanks.

  8. I’m a bit disappointed by your review this time, John. While you nicely describe the book as ” a great fat satisfying entertainment”, you place it above all the other Booker-listed titles you’ve read so far!

    I’ve followed Ghosh since his debut novel ‘Circle of Reason’ and continued up to ‘The Glass Palace’ when I realised that he is more a literary journalist than a novelist. He writes well, and has tremendous capacity for researching his subject, but if you look hard into his work, it awfully lacks that quality we call literary merit. You find the setting of his novel impeccable, but when it comes to his characters, they are stiff as cardboards, more contrived than real.

    What hurts me more is that in recent novels he adds absurd sex scenes just to hook the readers.

    Amitav started with a great promise, but with every new book, he began to moneytize his writing. The process is now complete. He is now the darling of the MARKET.

  9. While you nicely describe the book as ” a great fat satisfying entertainment”, you place it above all the other Booker-listed titles you’ve read so far!

    Well Mrinal, that says all you need to know about the other Booker-listed titles! (And I did say “most”, not all!) Ghosh does write well, and for me that’s more than half the battle. I agree to some extent on the characters issue: there are some well-drawn characters in Sea of Poppies, such as Deeti and Zachary, but others like Kalua and Burnham are pretty one-note. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that, just over a week after reading it, I can’t remember if there are any sex scenes, absurd or otherwise, in Sea of Poppies.

    I think overall I probably gave Ghosh the benefit of the doubt (a) for writing a book which, unlike several of the longlisted titles, was a pleasure to read, and (b) on the basis that this is the first book in a trilogy and is stated as such, so there is scope for development in characters etc in the following volumes. The corollary of that, of course, is that it should be ‘marked down’ for not being a complete work in itself.

    I’ll defer to your greater experience of Ghosh’s work. Perhaps then I should try Circle of Reason and I’d be really impressed!

  10. A reassuring entry John, I’m looking forward to this one when it hits paperback and your review sounds like it will be very enjoyable.

    I thought Paul’s comment on its ambition interesting, as you seemed to me to rather fault it on that front, do you think he’s fair that there are massive themes being brought to life or was it for you more of a traditional 19th century novel of cultures and history?

    Also, I’m not personally persuaded that elements of trilogies are suitable for judging in prizes, if this wins but the later two novels aren’t much good, where does that leave us? Regeneration won and is widely thought to be weak, whileThe Ghost Road was widely praised. Shouldn’t trilogies ideally only be assessed once complete?

  11. Well as Paul suggests, Max, the themes in Sea of Poppies are heavily refracted through the individual characters, in that most of what happens to them derives one way or another from colonial powers in general and the opium trade in particular. However as you imply, it’s hard to judge its treatment of themes when it’s part of a larger work, yet to be published or indeed written.

    As to that, yes I do agree that trilogies should only be assessed once complete, unless there is an absolute quality to each individual volume which enables it to stand alone and be judged on that basis also. On the subject of Pat Barker, I’m not sure I follow your detail above but The Ghost Road won the Booker in 1995 despite being the concluding volume of the Regeneration trilogy. On its own, I don’t think The Ghost Road was particularly strong – and I can say that having read it with no experience of the earlier two volumes! Probably this was to my detriment in terms of reading enjoyment, but it did bring a strong supposition to bear that the judges in 1995 must have taken the first two volumes into account when awarding it the prize – which is not at all fair on the other shortlisted titles, which must stand on their own (as they should).

  12. John,

    I had my Pat Barker titles confused, my point was that the first novel in the trilogy was well regarded, the third poorly, yet the third won on its own leaving it unclear whether the win was for that book or the trilogy as a whole or the (arguably) unfairly passed over first of the sequence. The point got a tad muddled as I misremembered the titles of the individual books.

  13. I’m happy we have you to screen the Booker longlist for the rest of us. I am reading “Netherland” now despite your rather lukewarm review. So far I rather agree with you about “Netherland”. Although the novel is charming, it doesn’t cover much ground. As far as the Booker is concerned, I’m a little disappointed that Rose Tremain is not on this year’s longlist. Also from other blogs, it seems like Helen Garner is also a notorious absence.

  14. Hi Tony, nice to see you back here. Rose Tremain was eligible last year for The Road Home, but didn’t get longlisted then either. She did win this year’s Orange Prize though. I must admit the book didn’t appeal to me. I take it you liked it?

    Yes, Helen Garner’s The Spare Room is very good. I read it just before the Booker longlist was announced and haven’t got around to writing a review yet. I ‘d better do it soon or I’ll forget what I liked about it…

  15. HI John,

    I read Ghosh a long time ago and greatly enjoyed him. I think I’m going to revisit him now. I hope the Booker isn’t too much of a slog read.


  16. Frankly gav, but for the occasional pleasure like this book, it has been. But I have only two to go now (three reviews of ones I’ve read are still to appear here), so I am enjoying a sort of endorphin rush of relief from the light at the end of the tunnel.

  17. Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies has today been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2008. This was in the top ranks of the longlist as far as I was concerned, and deserving of its place on the shortlist.

  18. I am glad I read this review!
    Your review is the best among the ones I have read,and I am going to pick this up for sure!

      1. Well, strangely, Ronak, we’ve had two different paperback covers in the UK. The first was based on the hardback design above, but the second is a hideous, bland design which I think is completely offputting. I’m not sure if the second has replaced the first, or is just an alternative for those readers who don’t like their books to look nice.

  19. I just finished this book on the basis of your review. Thanks very much.
    Even though it is very old fashioned and very long, I really enjoyed the story, the characters and the settings. Usually pidgin English is off putting and only used for people of lower classes. Here, the language helped pinpoint caste but also really drew a picture of language in the melting pot. Very nicely researched piece of work.
    However- has anyone pointed out similarities between this and Hanif Kureshi’s first novel “the Impressionist” because I certainly see them caste climbing, race changes and all. They’re both wonderful and juicy books, though, so I’m not complaining.
    Christopher ENZI

  20. However- has anyone pointed out similarities between this and Hanif Kureshi’s first novel “the Impressionist” because I certainly see them caste climbing, race changes and all. They’re both wonderful and juicy books, though, so I’m not complaining

    ‘The Impressionist’ was by Hari Kunzru, not Hanif Kureishi. I liked The Impressionist too, interesting to consider alongside Kipling’s ‘Kim’.

  21. Is it fiction or fact? Is he trivializing history or stimulating it? Mr. Ghosh did not answer the question why that part of India was chosen for Opimum cultivation and became the supplier of girmitias. Bihar is still one of the underdeveloped parts of India. Is it the legacy of Opium? What about the other crop, the Indigo? I grew up in Bangladesh part of Bangal. I never heard about Opium but heard about Indigo.
    I believe his research must have given him a very vivid picture of India and Bengal of that time. Can he write about villages not just on the banks of Ganga and Hoogli rivers but deeper inside away from the banks?
    I believe, it is in 1835 ( the same time period the book deals with) Thomas Macaulay, a British historian, poet and orientalist, stated in his famous Minute on Indian Education of 1835, that the British education system in Indian needed to produce Indians who were “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”
    The Opium traders are gone but India and Bangladesh are still producing likes of those Mr. Macaulay stated and they are still causing havoc to that part of the world, ever more than the Opium traders did. They are more of a colonialists than the British ever were.
    Nirod Choudhury, V. S. Naipaul, Amitav Ghosh, what a contrast!

  22. Uhhh, sorry about the pingbacks, John. When I transferred my blog the program for some reason removed the itallics from my post titles, and I finally got the courage to fix it today. Apparently when I fixed it, all links ping away!

  23. No problem, Trevor. I’ve noticed the same thing on my own blog; most pingbacks (to my own earlier posts) don’t ‘kick in’ until I edit the post for some reason. Who can explain the mysteries of blog technology?

  24. Hello,

    I am half way through reading Sea of poppies… I agree with John that this book was one of the best amongst the list! In the beginning I also wondered why Amitav Ghosh did not win the prize… He seemed to be a deserving candidate. But as I went through the pages following the journey of ‘Ibis’ there was a certain dryness… I agree with Mrinal Bose’s views. I was also thinking if Ghosh had used too many bengali, bhojpuri and hindustani in his words… Thanks for the review…

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