River Of Smoke
- John Murray General Publishing Division
- Publication Date:
- 10 May 2012
- Historical Fiction
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With River of Smoke, Amitav Ghosh continues the story that he originally introduced in Sea of Poppies. When we left off the Ibis was battling a storm off the coast of Mauritius and some of the characters were adrift in a long boat. While not picking up exactly where he left off, we are first treated to a flash forward and from this we can see Deeti’s future as a revered matriarch. He then picks up the narrative and brings us up to date on the whereabouts of the characters. He zeros in on two of the characters from the first book, Neel and Paulina, as well as introducing some new, and colourful characters to help flesh out the story. We follow these characters as they embark on further adventures that eventually lead to Canton. We arrive there in time to read of the various incidents that were to lead to the First Opium War in 1840. Although the story may not have captivated me quite as much as Sea of Poppies, I think River of Smoke is, in many ways, the better book. What this book offers is a good story, peopled with engaging characters, but the payload for me was the history. The detailed descriptions of Canton in 1839, from the clothing, the food, the customs, the religion and, mostly, the political situation. I knew very little about this period of history particularly it’s financial importance both in Asia and the Western World. Ghosh manages to paint a vivid picture of power, money and greed and conveys his facts without losing the readers’ interest. The use of Robin’s letters to Paulina at the start of many of the later chapters was simply brilliant. Written in a humorous, chatty tone, he was able to bring together the various threads of the story, the opium trade, the search for the elusive golden camellia, as well as the political manoeuvrings. In contrast we have the darker story of Bahram Modi who had so much to gain or lose in this conflict. Overall, River of Smoke was a rich, satisfying read, managing to be both exotic and informative.
Here is fabulous storytelling of a type hard to find these days. While River of Smoke is the second in a trilogy (after Sea of Poppies), one does not have to have read the first book to become completely swept up in the second. A largely new cast of characters fills this work as the reader is transported to Canton in the time immediately leading up to the First Opium War. The language is especially rich, and as I was listening, I relished the pidgin, the Indian English, and all the atmosphere of the many nationalities jostling in Canton. I can't wait for the next one!
The second book in the Ibis trilogy yet again transports us into an exotic and unfamiliar world, with rich details and characters who seem to live and breathe, so that the overall effect is as though we have traveled in time to the 19th century and landed squarely within the pages of the book. In the first chapter, Ghosh brings us up to date with some of the main characters who were aboard the Ibis as a cargo of slave labourers bound for Mauritius in <i>Sea of Poppies</i> and sums up where the story had taken us in the first book, so that there is no sense of interruption in the narrative. Then we are plunged squarely into Fanqui Town, the only port open to foreign trace in China, where foreigners of all stripes, from rich merchants to seamen, are allowed to reside and conduct business. It is situated just outside the city walls of Canton, where none but the native Chinese may enter. Our main protagonists are Bahram Modi, a Parsi Merchant from Bombay—mentioned in the first book as being the father of Ah Fat, the opium addict, now an escaped convict; Neel, Ah Fat's friend, formerly a wealthy rajah fallen on hard times and now another escaped convict, who becomes the Munshi (secretary) of Bahram Modi; Paulette Lambert - the orphaned daughter of a French botanist who has been taken on board the Redruth by a wealthy botanist and merchant, Fitcher Penrose, on an expedition to collect rare plants in China. Since foreign women are barred from Fanqui town, her eyes and ears in the foreign enclave belong to a newly introduced character, Robert Chinnery, an painter, and Paulette’s childhood friend, who helps her track down a rare, almost mythical flower, and keeps up a regular correspondence with her. The action here takes place mostly on land, though Fanqui town is surrounded by a vast multitude of river-dwellers who live and conduct business on their boats, and there is no lack of adventure. The foreign merchants, including Bahram Modi, have sailed to China with bigger than ever cargoes of opium, which they intend to sell at triple the rates of their previous shipment; the Chinese emperor has cracked down on the flow of opium into his country due to the alarming and ever-growing number victims who's lives are ruined by addiction, with the result that the demand for the drug are keener than ever. But the emperor has sent one of his staunchest officials to Canton, Lin Zexu, a highly moral scholar known for his incorruptibility, who is assigned to suppress the opium trade at any cost, and things in Fanqui Town are about to become very uncomfortable for everyone, as they lead up to the first Opium War. To sum up in few words: River of Smoke makes for some engrossing and exciting reading and leaves us with an impatient longing to continue with the third and final installation of the trilogy. Hopefully the wait will not be too prolonged.
The sequel to Sea of Poppies was disappointing to some because it wasn’t a direct continuation of the same characters. Instead, we get the parting of ways among the Ibis castaways and those that were caught up in the storm. Most of the story is set on land rather than the open sea. Ghosh’s background as a social anthropologist comes through in his details of daily life and the politics that surround the opium trade. Ghosh has followed the opium trail from the poppy fields and factories in India to the city of Canton in China. The Brits have figured out a way to make the colony of India profitable, ignoring the question of morals vs. free trade. “…There was no language like English for turning lies into legalisms.” As is often the case in trade between countries, greed sets in, and corruption on both sides is apparent.I enjoyed this book almost as much as its predecessor. It is really the middle of a big story as there is a third book planned. This is the part of the story where we get the historical background and Round One of the Opium Wars which was mostly a financial loss for British traders. While I missed some of the characters that were in the first book, I really enjoyed the complexity of some of the new characters as they tried to play by British rules in the Orient. I was completely taken by Robin Chinnery and his gossipy letters to Paulette, who was barred from entering Canton because she was a foreign woman. The chatty discourses about art, love, and horticulture provided some relief from the growing tension in Canton. I’m looking forward to seeing how Mr. Ghosh constructs the next book. I’m pretty sure things will heat up when English troops get involved -- and we can always hope that there will be a big reunion of characters at the end.
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