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River of Smoke

Ibis Trilogy, Part 2

by Amitav Ghosh

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh
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  • Published in USA  Sep 2011
    528 pages
    Genre: Historical Fiction

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Power Reviewer Cloggie Downunder

Another excellent read
“Opium is like the wind or the tides: it is outside my power to affect its course. A man is neither good nor evil because he sails his ship upon the wind. It is his conduct towards those around him – his friends, his family, his servants – by which he must be judged. This is the creed I live by”

River of Smoke is the second book in the Ibis Trilogy by Amitav Ghosh. The story starts with an elderly Deeti Colver in Mauritius, visiting her shrine with its pictorial record of the family history. But another visitor is asked to make his not-insignificant contribution: soon the reminiscences of Neel Rattan Halder, also familiar to readers from Sea of Poppies, take over the tale. The reader learns the fate of some of the passengers of the Ibis after the storm in the Bay of Bengal, in particular, Paulette Lambert , Ah Fatt and Neel, with occasional mentions of Zachary Reid’s fate. But the majority of this book centres on Ah Fatt’s Parsi father, Seth Bahram Modi, whose opium-laden ship, the Anahita, weathers the same storm in the Bay of Bengal, en route to Canton, and on events there as the Chinese Emperor takes steps to eradicate the scourge of the opium trade on his people.

Once again, Ghosh gives the reader a tremendous amount of information: of course, opium trade features largely, but Chinese customs, trade and diplomacy, bird’s nest soup, the transport of live plants across the globe, Asian art, painted gardens and Napoleon all get a mention. And providing all this, as he does, in the context of an engaging story set against the backdrop of events leading to the First Opium War, he makes it easy to assimilate. His characters are all well-rounded: their backstories often forming interesting little tales by themselves. His (and his ancestor’s) fascination with the migration of words is apparent in the many different language forms that appear: local patois, pidgin and slang. The number of aliases that some of the characters have is another intriguing facet of this book.

As well as straight narrative, Ghosh gives the reader facts by employing the device of a newcomer’s first impressions and explanations. The letters from Robin Chinnery to Paulette, in particular, serve this purpose, as well as being a marvellous source of humour. This book, like the first, is filled with beautiful descriptive prose and insightful observations: “Nowhere on earth, I suspect, is the importance of portals as well understood as in China. In this country, gateways are not merely entrances and exits - they are tunnels between different dimensions of existence”. Another excellent read that will have fans looking forward to the third book, Flood of Fire.
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