Summary and book reviews of Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Sea of Poppies

By Amitav Ghosh

Sea of Poppies
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2008,
    528 pages.
    Paperback: Sep 2009,
    528 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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Book Summary

At the heart of this vibrant saga is a vast ship, the Ibis. Its destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean; its purpose, to fight China’s vicious nineteenth-century Opium Wars. As for the crew, they are a motley array of sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts.

In a time of colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a diverse cast of Indians and Westerners, from a bankrupt raja to a widowed tribeswoman, from a mulatto American freedman to a freespirited French orphan. As their old family ties are washed away, they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais, or ship-brothers. An unlikely dynasty is born, which will span continents, races, and generations.

The vast sweep of this historical adventure spans the lush poppy fields of the Ganges, the rolling high seas, the exotic backstreets of Canton. But it is the panorama of characters, whose diaspora encapsulates the vexed colonial history of the East itself, that makes Sea of Poppies so breathtakingly alive—a masterpiece from one of the world’s finest novelists.

One

The vision of a tall-masted ship, at sail on the ocean, came to Deeti on an otherwise ordinary day, but she knew instantly that the apparition was a sign of destiny, for she had never seen such a vessel before, not even in a dream: how could she have, living as she did in northern Bihar, four hundred miles from the coast? Her village was so far inland that the sea seemed as distant as the netherworld: it was the chasm of darkness where the holy Ganga disappeared into the Kala-Pani, 'the Black Water'.

It happened at the end of winter, in a year when the poppies were strangely slow to shed their petals: for mile after mile, from Benares onwards, the Ganga seemed to be flowing between twin glaciers, both its banks being blanketed by thick drifts of white-petalled flowers. It was as if the snows of the high Himalayas had descended on the plains to await the arrival of Holi and its springtime profusion of colour.

The village in which Deeti lived was on the outskirts of the town of ...

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About This Book

Turning his eye to the nineteenth-century opium trade, the acclaimed author Amitav Ghosh has crafted a novel that is by turns witty and provocative, while delivering a magnificent historical adventure. An intricate saga, Sea of Poppies brings together a motley array of sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts, who have embarked on a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean in the midst of the Opium Wars between Britain and China. This panorama of characters, including a mulatto freedman from America, a bankrupt raja, a beautiful, free-spirited French orphan, a widowed tribeswoman, and other disparate members of society, brings to life a period of colonial upheaval that caused seismic cultural shifts ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

As the language departs from the concrete vocabulary of vessels and their parts, meaning breaks down, but the speakers forge ahead into delightful misunderstandings with unwittingly bawdy undertones. There is a glossary of sorts at the back, but after a few exchanges, you get the gist – which is just about what the characters themselves get as they attempt to bridge linguistic impasses. Struggling to decode the strange patois, then slipping into its lilts and rhythms, illuminates how malleable language is, how much we mold and shape it to our own contexts and purposes, and yet so often view it as a rigid structure not to be tampered with. The pidgin tongue isn't always easy reading, but it's certainly fun. As Amitav Ghosh remarks in an interview with New York Magazine, "The idea that language is a warm bath into which you slip in a comfortable way, to me it's a very deceptive idea."   (Reviewed by Lucia Silva).

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Media Reviews
The New York Times - Janet Maslin

By the time this book ends, the reader has been caught up in a plot of Dickensian intricacy, the Ibis readied for whatever its mission may be, and the characters firmly enveloped in new, self-created identities.

The Washington Post - Shashi Tharoor

His descriptions bring a lost world to life....At times, Sea of Poppies reads like a cross between an Indian Gone with the Wind and a Victorian novel of manners…his novel is also a delight.

Library Journal

Unfortunately, this first entry in a proposed trilogy is uneven, trying to combine historical fiction with a comedy of manners, a maritime adventure, and a treatise on class/gender discrimination and ending abruptly with no resolution for those who may not want to wait for the sequel.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The cast is marvelous and the plot majestically serpentine, but the real hero is the English language, which has rarely felt so alive and vibrant.

Kirkus Reviews

A historical novel crammed almost to the bursting point with incidents and characters...this astonishing, mesmerizing launch will be hard to top.

The New Statesman

[It] is a thoroughly readable romp of a novel, filled with excellent set pieces, comic digressions (especially its comedies of manners), love interest, subterfuge and betrayal. We are left thirsty for more.

The Independent (UK)

Bedazzling . . . Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies, the first volume in his Ibis trilogy, revisits in new, breathtakingly detailed and compelling ways some of the concerns of his earlier novels . . . We await with eagerness the second volume of the trilogy.

The Economist

Sea of Poppies is a sprawling adventure with a cast of hundreds and numerous intricate stories encompassing poverty and riches, despair and hope, and the long-fingered reach of the opium trade . . . Lustrous.

The Times (London)

India in the 1830s is wonderfully evoked -- the smells, rituals and squalor...Coarseness and violence, cruelty and fatalism, are relieved with flashes of emotion and kindness...profoundly moving.

Reader Reviews
Cloggie Downunder

a brilliant read
Sea of Poppies is the first book of the Ibis Trilogy by Amitav Ghosh. This is a beautifully told story set in India, the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal on the eve of the First Opium War. The Ibis is an ex-slave ship purchased by merchant Benjamin...   Read More

shreoshi mukherjee

spellbound
Amitav Ghosh's "sea of poppies"was a delightful read..the book is fast paced and kept me hooked till the end..loved it.

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The Ghazipur Opium Factory
For centuries, India was the largest exporter of opium, accounting for 17-20% of Indian revenues. The export of opium to China began in the 1780's at the urging of the first governor general of British India, Warren Hastings, in an attempt to balance trade with China. At the time, China exported enormous amounts of goods including tea, but imported little from Europe. At first, there wasn't much demand for the drug, but over the next decade demand increased exponentially. Indian farmers were effectively forced to replace their crops with opium poppies, and then sell the resulting harvest back to the British East India Company for a pittance.


The 200-year old Ghazipur opium factory in India (which...

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