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.