The Glass Palace last year and loved it. Sea of Poppies is the first volume of a trilogy set in India in the early 19th century, during the first Opium War. It tells the story of the owners, crew, and passengers of the Ibis, a former slave ship which has been retrofitted to carry indentured servants (“coolies”) from India to Mauritius where they will work on the sugar plantations. It seemed to me like Ghosh was using the Ibis as a metaphor for India itself: a melting pot where disparate cultures, religions, castes, and classes are thrust together and where the ensuing conflicts are brutal but where some people also find hope and at least a chance of happiness.
Ghosh populates the Ibis with a fascinating crowd of characters, including several I really got attached to. Despite the cast of thousands I never had trouble keeping track of them, though I did sometimes struggle to understand them; Ghosh has researched and recreated the slang and sometimes entire dialects of the time period and there were pages of dialogue of which I could barely understand a word. Note to readers: Ghosh is a good enough writer to craft the action and subsequent dialogue in such a way that you can always figure out what is happening in the dialect-laden scenes. Just forge ahead with confidence and you won’t miss anything.
India in the early 19th century was disease-ridden and perilous. Society was repressive, punitive, and unjust. And what the British were up to with the opium? Absolutely beyond shameful. The stories in this book made me rageful, even if it was over events that occurred almost 200 years ago. I can’t wait to read the next volume, River of Smoke. Ghosh is still writing the as-yet-untitled third volume.
(Book 19, 2013)