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River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

River of Smoke (original 2011; edition 2012)

by Amitav Ghosh

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4773921,645 (3.96)1 / 310
Title:River of Smoke
Authors:Amitav Ghosh
Info:John Murray Publishers (2012), Paperback
Collections:Your library
Tags:Fiction, India, China

Work details

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh (2011)

  1. 70
    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel by David Mitchell (Tinwara)
    Tinwara: Mitchells book is set in a similar enclave: the island of Dejima near Nagasaki, where only Dutch merchants were allowed to trade (but not to enter Japan) Set in the year 1799.
  2. 00
    The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China by Julia Lovell (wandering_star)

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English (37)  Italian (2)  All languages (39)
Showing 1-5 of 37 (next | show all)
For some reason, it was disorienting for me to have this sequel to Sea of Poppies begin far into the future with everyone settled in a satisfactory way (maybe). I assumed that this would be clarified at some point in the narrative, but it wasn't. Instead, a bunch of characters make their way, separately, to Canton. New characters join and become important to the narrative, but other characters are only alluded to and left to their own devices somewhere else. One of the character insertions that really annoyed me was Robin - a half caste son of a semi-famous painter. He seemed to have been inserted in the story just so he could become a disinterested observer to the events in Canton. Well, that and provide some light entertainment as he describes his search for a "Friend."
Meanwhile, in Canton, we are treated to an up close and personal view of the machinations of the British. Desperate to maintain the opium trade and to gain a foothold in China, they are willing to go to war and no personal sacrifice on the part of any of their trading partners is too great to keep them from this goal.
Mainly, I was overwhelmed by the descriptions of every blessed thing, from boats to clothing. These exhaustive descriptions were even included in "newsy" letters from Robin to Paulette (female amateur botanist not allowed into Canton). This tended to detract from the flow of the story. ( )
  nittnut | Jan 20, 2015 |
I have not yet read Sea of Poppies, but I enjoyed River of Smoke tremendously. Having read on the Opium Wars I was familiar already with the names of some of the real-historical characters, and Ghosh made them live again in this book. ( )
  NatalieSW | Jan 1, 2015 |
This is the second novel in a planned trilogy by Amitav Ghosh, set in the late 1830s, on the eve of the first opium war between Britain and China. I read the first, Sea of Poppies, three years ago and enjoyed Amitav's deft use of language as he wove several tales set in the heat of the north Indian plains where the poppies grew; processed in the British opium factories and stored in the wharves of the Hooghly River. River of Smoke continues the story moving the center of the action from Calcutta to the Chinese port-city of Canton (today's Guangzhou).

The story is Dickensian in its sweep of characters who represent different classes and interests that intermingle on the edge of China each linked together by the power of Opium. The book is linked to the first novel by the Ibis, a former slave ships carrying convicts and indentured workers to Mauritius. A storm overtakes the Ibis and the Anahita, an opium carrier out of Bombay owned by Bahram, a Parsi merchant, and the Redruth, outfitted by a Cornish plantsman for botanical exploration. The storm links the destinies of the characters on these three ships. The story is filled with details about the place and time in which you, as reader, are immersed by this novel so much so that you sometimes feel that you are present in Canton, or any of the many other places that Ghosh imagines. While the book focuses on three primary ships and their clan the central characters represent high- and low-life intermingling . Through it all Ghosh conjures up a thrilling sense of place.
Suspense builds as the interests of the British, Indian and other foreign opium traders collide with growing resistance from the Chinese rulers. The conflict is brought to a climax by the appointment of a new commissioner by the Emperor whose primary aim is to put a stop to the quantities of ruinous opium being smuggled into the country. Neither side has completely clean hands and opium, like other drugs in our own era, seemed to have an irresistible power. As Bahram told Napoleon (yes, he and his aide meet the General), opium was like the wind or the tides: "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 judges." (p 166) In the end, Bahram finds himself wanting.
Canton in the first half of the nineteenth century was one center of globalism of the age. Ghosh's use of language continues to impress the reader as it spans English, Hindi, Parsi, Malay, and Chinese; perhaps at times it becomes overwhelming. Nonetheless the stories and characters who populate them entrance the reader. The metaphors and allusions reach from the West to the East . At one point near the middle of the book there is a reference to Gericault's masterpiece, "The Raft of the Medusa". The plight of these castaways strikes me as an appropriate metaphor for the players in the Opium trade as the events in the book take their toll as the story ends. ( )
  jwhenderson | Oct 3, 2013 |

River of Smoke starts out putting us back in touch with the main characters from Sea of Poppies. But pretty much as soon as they've been reintroduced most of them drop out of the picture, some never to be mentioned again, and those who remain gradually withdraw from centre stage to become relatively minor figures – the munshi (secretary cum newsgatherer) to a major character, the recipient of letters from another. The characters we engage with most strongly are new: Bahram Modi, a Parsi opium trader, and Robin Chinnery, artist, homosexual romantic and writer of long, flamboyant letters. Possibly the main character is fanqui-town, the brilliantly evoked, exhilaratingly diverse Babel on the edge of Canton where foreign traders were allowed to live and work in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The opium trade, whose viciousness was graphically evoked in the first book, is the most profitable activity of the fanquis, and the novel traces events leading up to the First Opium War in 1939: the Emperor is no longer turning a blind eye and a new, incorruptible man arrives in Canton to take definitive, dramatic action. According to Google the historical war didn't turn out well for the Chinese and the trade continued for decades, but River of Smoke ends just before the war proper begins and that outcome isn't at all obvious.

The tension is real, the stakes are high, and I trust that I'm being told a true story – but sometimes it's as if the novelist was swamped by his research and forgot that he cared about his characters. Especially in the first half, hardly a paragraph of thisi book is without its cluster of glittering facts or shiny words. A glossary would have to define a seemingly endless variety of boats, buildings, functionaries, items of clothing, financial processes, scientific equipment, dubious activities, plants, religious rituals and so on as they are named in Bengali and other Indian languages, Cantonese, Portuguese, Farsi, regional Englishes, Cantonese pidgin, Mauritian Kreol, and so on. There are longish extracts from actual documents issued by the Chinese authorities and the fanqui opium traders. There's a wealth of historical anecdote: we see Napoleon at Longwood on St Helena; we hear of escaped slaves on Mauritius who committed mass suicide when they saw troops approaching their hiding place, unaware that the troops were coming to tell them that slavery had long since been abolished; we learn the origins of chai, and much much more. The effect isn't intimidating: Amitav Ghosh is like a child let loose in a linguistic and historical lolly shop, and wants us to share his delight.

I love all that, but it can at times sideline the characters, leaving them with little to do but react or comment. ( )
  shawjonathan | Jul 28, 2013 |
This is the second historical fiction novel in a planned trilogy by Amitav Ghosh. Ghosh has not released the third installment of the series as of this writing.

In the first novel, Sea of Poppies, Ghosh introduces the reader to a large group of characters, who are involved in the opium trade in India in various capacities. Eventually, the characters are on a ship, the Ibis, that is headed for Mauritius. In River of Smoke, events lead to some of these characters travelling to Canton, China, which is where most of this second novel takes place.

Many of the characters in River of Smoke were real people in the historical record, and the research that Ghosh undertook to write the novel is very impressive. Most of this novel takes place during the events leading to the First Opium War. The central dilemma in the novel is whether the British, American, and Indian citizens living in Canton should cease smuggling opium, per the orders of the Chinese government. While anyone with any historical knowledge of the situation already knows how this will develop, this is still a fascinating read. Ghosh does an excellent job in characterizing these historical figures, and he gives the reader a vested interest in finding out how each character is affected by this.

I liked this novel. I did not think that it was quite as good as Sea of Poppies, but I still liked it. Sea of Poppies had more of a mysterious quality and an epic scope than River of Smoke. River of Smoke started out in much the same vain as Sea of Poppies, but it seemed to lose some of that quality as the scene moved to Canton.

The other issue that I had with the novel was that Ghosh was too descriptive at times. In some parts, I found myself rolling my eyes and thinking, "Just get on with it already!" Description is a good thing, but there is such a thing as overkill, and I thought that Ghosh was guilty of this at times.

Still, this is an interesting read. I recommend it for anyone who is interested in the time period, drug smuggling, and nineteenth century China. I am anxiously awaiting the third installment of the series, which I think says as much as anything. ( )
1 vote fuzzy_patters | Jul 21, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 37 (next | show all)
On one level, the novel that arises from this formative geopolitics is a remarkable feat of research, bringing alive the hybrid customs of food and dress and the competing philosophies of the period with intimate precision; on another it is a subversive act of empathy, viewing a whole panorama of world history from the "wrong" end of the telescope. The real trick, though, is that it is also fabulously entertaining.
added by souloftherose | editThe Observer, Tim Adams (Jun 19, 2011)
Amitav Ghosh's two latest novels carry us deep inside the opium trade in the 1830s. River of Smoke is the second volume of a proposed trilogy. The first, Sea of Poppies, published in 2008, took us along the Ganges and to Calcutta, where the poppies are grown and the opium processed. River of Smoke follows the story through to Canton in China, where the opium is sold. The Chinese authorities are trying to prevent illegal imports of the drug, which has inflicted a plague of addiction on the Chinese population while making empire-sized fortunes for the irrepressibly shameless traders, mostly British.

In historical novels the past can sometimes feel tamed; hindsight, hovering just off the page, tells us that we know what it all added up to and what came of it (the First Opium War, during which British gunboats enforced a treaty opening Chinese ports to international trade, comes shortly after the ending of this novel). But Ghosh's novels somehow succeed in taking us back inside the chaos of when "then" was "now". His grasp of the detail of the period is exhaustive – he is so thoroughly submerged in it – that readers can't possibly remember all the things he shows them, or hold on to all the life-stories of all the characters he introduces. Both novels are cabinets of curiosities, crowded with items that hold a story of their own.
added by kidzdoc | editThe Guardian, Tessa Hadley (Jun 10, 2011)

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Deeti's shrine was hidden in a cliff, in a far corner of Mauritius, where the island's eastern and southern shorelines collide to form the wind-whipped dome of the Morne Brabant.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374174237, Hardcover)

A Washington Post Notable Fiction Book for 2011

The Ibis, loaded to its gunwales with a cargo of indentured servants, is in the grip of a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal; among the dozens flailing for survival are Neel, the pampered raja who has been convicted of embezzlement; Paulette, the French orphan masquerading as a deck-hand; and Deeti, the widowed poppy grower fleeing her homeland with her lover, Kalua.

The storm also threatens the clipper ship Anahita, groaning with the largest consignment of opium ever to leave India for Canton. And the Redruth, a nursery ship, carries Frederick “Fitcher” Penrose, a horticulturist determined to track down the priceless treasures of China that are hidden in plain sight: its plants that have the power to heal, or beautify, or intoxicate. All will converge in Canton’s Fanqui-town, or Foreign Enclave: a tumultuous world unto itself where civilizations clash and sometimes fuse. It is a powder keg awaiting a spark to ignite the Opium Wars.

Spectacular coincidences, startling reversals of fortune, and tender love stories abound. But this is much more than an irresistible page-turner. The blind quest for money, the primacy of the drug trade, the concealment of base impulses behind the rhetoric of freedom: in River of Smoke the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries converge, and the result is a consuming historical novel with powerful contemporary resonance. Critics praised Sea of Poppies for its vibrant storytelling, antic humor, and rich narrative scope; now Amitav Ghosh continues the epic that has charmed and compelled readers all over the globe.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:18:30 -0400)

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Amid a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal, three vessels, and the diverse occupants within, converge on Canton's Fanqui-Town, or Foreign Enclave, which is a powder keg awaiting a spark to ignite the Opium Wars.

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