Packing a wildly varied cast of characters and all of their
stories on board a ship and expecting it to stay afloat through 500 pages seems
a dangerous proposition for a novel. With Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh
proves it can also be a brilliant one. In a thoroughly enjoyable blend of
historical fiction, comedy of manners, linguistic play, and socio-political
underpinnings, the Ibis becomes its own sea-borne universe populated by
travelers cut off from the past, trapped and set free all at once by total
A fallen Raja; the son of a freed American slave and her white owner; a French orphan girl disguised as a man and seeking her heritage; the widow of an opium addict and indentured poppy grower; a mysterious prisoner; and dozens of others converge on the ship's decks as sailors, servants, laborers, spiritual seekers, and stowaways. Soon, men and women who would never have dared to glance in each other's direction are crammed together and dependent on one another for survival. In desperate re-alliances they find a certain thrill at shedding the rigid shells of conformity, relishing their emerging intellectual and emotional freedom, despite their physical confinement. Each of their stories unfurls with a flourish into a brilliant tapestry, then folds neatly back into the hold of the ship, and each tantalizing drama always left me hungry for more. It's easy to see Sea of Poppies as the first installment of a trilogy - Amitav Ghosh admits there may be even more - as each character could well be the protagonist of his own novel.
It's just as easy to see how such a vast enterprise could become unwieldy and messy, but Amitav Ghosh's masterful handling never lets the story veer off course. His narration is full and lush, but never verbose, his plotlines serpentine, but always fluid and fast. He paints scenes with precise, colorful strokes, and clothes characters with a couturier's eye and tailor's thread, every element coming alive in vivid detail. But above all, Ghosh revels in language. Aboard the Ibis, sailors and servants from around the globe speak a language known only on the high seas. It is a melodious and often hilarious hodgepodge originally formed around the argot of ships: "an anarchic medley of Portuguese calaluzes and Kerala pattimars, Arab booms and Bengal paunchways, Malay proas and Tamil catamarans, Hindusthani pulwars and English snows yet beneath the surface of this farrago of sound, meaning flowed as freely as the currents beneath the crowded press of boats."
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."
Sea of Poppies emerges as a lively testament to the richness of "uncomfortable" language, but it's also a terrifically engrossing adventure story, a historical narrative, a comment on politics and society, all spun very carefully into a luxuriously dramatic read.
This review was originally published in January 2009, and has been updated for the September 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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