Fans of Amitav Ghosh’s “Ibis” trilogy have been eagerly awaiting the second novel ever since he beguiled them with his narrative powers in “The Sea of Poppies”.
While the first novel took its readers through the opium fields and factories in Bihar through Calcutta’s thriving European community and international trade onto a refitted slave ship that transported a rag tag bunch of indentured laborers to Mauritius, the second novel, “River of Smoke”, takes us to Fanqui-town in Canton and to the cutthroat world of multi-national opium trade. Neel, the erstwhile prince and ship-board prisoner has escaped and found his way to Canton and there under a new alias works as a clerk for Bahram Modi, a Parsi opium trader.
The novel traces Bahram’s story and his rise from poverty to wealth through marriage, his risky business transporting opium through the Anahita, a ship financed by his in-laws, the politics of trade in Canton, the struggles of Europeans to maintain the opium trade, the resistance from Chinese, and his complex love life and relationships including the one with his son Ah-Fatt. Intertwined with Bahram’s story is that of Paulette/Puggly and her gender bending disguises, her experiences as a stowaway, and her eventual work for a horticulturalist engaged in transporting exotic plant species to Europe. Paulette and Neel are familiar to readers of The Sea of Poppies, and share the narrative stage with Bahram and Robin Chinnery, a dear friend of Paulette’s from Calcutta and the child of an English painter and his native mistress.
The narrative is convoluted and several narrative threads are carefully and finely balanced as the reader finds her way through a sea of characters. Sometimes the intricacies of the plot weigh down its flow and Ghosh, who seems to have never encountered an arcane detail about plants that he didn’t like, overwhelms his reader. As erudite and scholarly as his earlier novels, “The Glass Palace” and “The Sea of Poppies”, River of Smoke lacks the pacing and momentum of those earlier novels. Perhaps, this is the fate of the middle novel of a trilogy that has to carry the burden of its prequel and its sequel while covering a lot of ground. Despite this minor problem, the novel is exciting and informative and well worth the read.
As Ghosh works his way through the cutthroat and frenzied trade in Canton, the reader cannot but draw parallels between global trade in the nineteenth century and the present day. Ghosh being a skilful storyteller leaves the reader wondering, “what will happen next?” I suspect that we readers will have to wait another year or two to have our curiosities satisfied.
Amitav Ghosh reads from “River of Smoke” at the following Puget Sound locations: Monday, Oct. 17 he will read for the India Association of Western Washington at noon in the UW Kane Hall Walker-Ames Room, N.E. 41st St. & 15th Ave., on campus. Call (206) 547-8027. He reads again on Monday, Oct. 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Kirkland Performing Arts Center, 350 Kirkland Ave., Kirkland. Call (206) 621-2230×15. And, finally, on Tuesday, Oct. 18 at 7:30 p.m., he reads at Seattle Town Hall, 1119 – 8th, Seattle. Call (206) 624-6600 for more information.