Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh. Published 2009 by Picador. Paperback.
I read this book courtesy of LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.
Shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize, Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies is a dense, difficult novel that started slow for me but built to a riveting cliffhanger by the closing pages. It's the first of a planned trilogy and a great literary read.
Set in India just prior to the Opium Wars (1839 and 1856) Ghosh's novel follows a panoply of characters- Deeti, the widow of an opium worker who marries a lower-caste man and flees her family; Paulette, a French orphan who wants more out of life than learning Bible verses and making idle conversation; her childhood friend Jodu; Neel, an upper-caste man who finds himself disgraced and degraded; and Zachary, a sailor trying to navigate more than just his way across the sea. All of these characters- and others- are in some way connected to the opium trade, which Ghosh shows as a pervasive and insidious fact of life. Issues of gender, race, caste and colonialism conspire with the drug trade to shape the characters' lives, but Ghosh's people are not pawns in some political manifesto but willful and active doers who strive to make their own destiny.
I will admit I almost gave up on Sea of Poppies in the first few chapters. Ghosh's language is a vibrant stew of English and Indian dialects and the seadog vernacular aboardship reminded me of reading (or trying to read) Patrick O'Brian's seafaring classic Master and Commander- rig the topmastforesail and hoist the petards, or something, only half in a language I don't understand and with no real explanation. Even the glossary at the back is very little help. And the use of dialect continues throughout the book but I found I could understand most things in context.
I'm glad I stuck with it, though, because after a while with Ghosh's musical medley of languages, a kind of harmony develops and you'll find yourself fluent before you even realize it- and you'll find yourself engrossed in the story as his characters come together aboard a rickety vessel lurching towards an uncertain future. I felt for Neel's compounding humiliations and admired Deeti and Paulette for their tough determination in the face of cultural forces that would willingly crush them. Once the drama starts, it doesn't let up till the very last sentence- and then if you're like me, you'll find yourself flipping the back pages to make absolutely sure it's the end because you'll want it to keep going and going.
You can read my review on my blog here as well.