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River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

River of Smoke (original 2011; edition 2012)

by Amitav Ghosh

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6444614,998 (3.97)1 / 331
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. 80
    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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Showing 1-5 of 44 (next | show all)
While an enjoyable read, this book does not hold the same sway over the imagination as the prior book in the series, Sea of Poppies. I've spent some time trying to decide why this is so, because the writing style is in no way inferior -- Ghosh still brings a painterly eye and a sense of setting and place that is vivid and clear to the page. His word pictures are jewel-like in their detail and brilliance. His sense of history, also, is beautiful and finely told. I'm sure an immense amount of research went into the book but it never weighs down the narrative. He is diligent in letting the reader experience history as his characters do -- as events unfold, rather than as a great backdrop to their lives. Because of this, he is able to maintain a level of suspense and drama in their lives that is rarely diluted by the perspective of an omnipotent narrator. And if there is the occasional foreshadowing, or rare moments where a character's fate is telegraphed to the reader, well these are easily forgiven lapses against the panoramic story Ghosh is telling. If I had read this book first, I would have loved it for the description of life in Canton alone. Likewise, Ghosh's characters are all beautifully drawn, complex and driven by motives that are wholly real and understandable and compelling. They stand on their own, and do not demand of the reader any knowledge of the events that occurred in the first book, although reading Sea of Poppies certainly enriches the reader's perspective. But the continuing stories of Paulette and Neel and Ah Fatt -- central characters in the first book -- are taken up via the simple expedient of introducing them through the eyes of the people who become involved in their lives: a botanist/explorer who runs into Paulette during a visit to a neglected botanical garden; an opium trader whose ship is docked for repairs, where it is recognized by Ah Fatt. The coincidences are striking, but credible. Certainly plausible enough not to derail the story.

So the lukewarm reaction River of Smoke generally receives is a bit of a mystery. I finally decided that my problem with the book was a certain lack of narrative focus that Sea of Poppies did not suffer from. There is, in the end, a thematic exploration to the first book in the Ibis trilogy-- is it all about transformation. Metamorphosis. Every one of the characters who end up together on the Ibis are in the process of becoming somebody new: A local rajah becomes a person without caste. A woman escapes her own funeral pyre and leaves her old life in its ashes. A French girl makes herself into an Asiatic. A black sailor slowly turns into a white sahib. There is even a man who is gradually becoming the vessel for a female spirit. The color, the history, the picture of colonial India, the vivid historical detail and the striking way Ghosh can call up a scene before the reader's eyes -- these are all hung, as it were, on the frame of this common theme of transformation. Transformation is the underlying drive each character feels -- it is what makes the reader invested in their fate. So that even though Sea of Poppies ends with something of a cliff hanger, the story does feel complete, in a sense, because at that point every character has embraced who they have become. There is nothing like this narrative coherence in River of Smoke. It is, instead, simply a story of "what happens next." Beautifully told, to be sure, but not compelling in the way that Sea of Poppies was compelling. The lives of these people are now simply leaves swirling in the winds of change, and while there is some interest in seeing where, eventually, they come to rest, there is no real sense of direction or purpose to the novel except this: what happens next. It's not quite enough for a literary novel, to be honest. Not when we already know the author is capable of telling a deep story, not just a wide one.
  southernbooklady | May 5, 2017 |
Sequel to Sea of Poppies. I was more enthralled by the linguistic experimentation in the first novel, and the action was faster-paced, but this one packs an emotional punch via the intransigence of the British merchants behind the scenes of the first Opium War. A sickening historical episode that I knew nothing about before reading these novels, and now I can't wait for the third one to come out. ( )
  jalbacutler | Jan 10, 2017 |
I finished reading the first volume of the Ibis trilogy surprised at the abrupt ending and eager to find out more about the complex lives of the characters that Ghosh had introduced his readers to. That storyline is so lightly glossed over here that I still want to know more about them; but that’s not how I feel about the characters in this book. The richness of character and setting that I liked so much in Sea of Poppies shifts to a new location with only a few of the original characters remaining. And some of the characters show up briefly at the beginning of the book never to reappear. I guess they are just holding space until they come back in the third volume, although perhaps it too will jump into something new.
There’s still a lot of period detail, although more than once I felt that Ghosh was piling on details from his research that didn’t contribute much to the novel. There are some interesting items – the life of the traders in Canton before the Opium Wars, for example, and the elaborate gardens of the wealthy Chinese. But these are rather slight compared to the first novel. More serious, however, is the fact that the characters are, to me at least, less interesting and more contrived. Some of them, such as Neel, the Indian prince reduced to pretending to be a Bengali secretary, or Robin, the painter who seems to be there simply to narrate conversations in a voice other than the author’s, were never convincing or sympathetic. Only Bahram, the Indian opium trader who has risen to the elite of the Canton bourgeoisie, is interesting for his own story, and its end is a slow anti-climax.
What is good here is Ghosh’s detailed depiction of the machinations and rationalizations of the British opium traders when the new Chinese governor moves to block the import and sale of opium. Ghosh reports on historical figures and gives them arguments from period texts. The convenient new philosophy of the invisible hand of free trade justifies a vast drug trade and wealth. Anything in violation of trade is anathema, in spite of criminal laws or the effect of drugs on the populace, in spite of the complete prohibition of similar trade in Britain. It’s interesting to see that a few traders argued against the trade on moral grounds, making their profits in other goods, although their objections are forcefully overruled by the majority. And while the traders demand that the Chinese government stay out of the market, they don’t hesitate to call on the British government to send gunboats to enforce their access to the market.
The opium trade is the central issue of the book, but it also touches lightly on a variety of other moral issues, from family relationships, true identities and forgeries to the sex trade, all within the larger context of imperialism and commercial exploitation. But what is the convoluted storyline about the golden camellia? The unattainable, perhaps non-existent, mystery of the Orient?
As in the first volume, the use of language adds an interesting note to the storyline. From nautical slang to the pidgin English that different groups of traders use to converse among each other, the language itself represents the complex relationships between the Indian, Chinese, English and international traders and labourers. The language both unites characters across cultural barriers, and divides them from each other and from a deeper understanding that comes with a shared language and culture. While I enjoyed sometimes stopping to look up unfamiliar words – to find, for example, that the non-Chinese are restricted to living in Fanqui-town, or White-ghost Town – the sense is clear enough that the language doesn’t slow down the narrative.
So overall, some of the elements that made the first volume so interesting are still here, but I found the first volume much more engaging. I’m not sure I’d be looking for the third volume if this was the only one I had read. ( )
  rab1953 | Oct 4, 2016 |
Should have been more engaging, especially as I was reading it in modern Canton... I'm partly to blame, because I don't really know anything about the Opium Wars but I rather hoped I would have a better feel for it after reading this. It came across more like a village squabble though, the focus on how it affected the individual seemed to be at the expense of the big picture... suppose I should read a history book to learn more and not expect too much from fiction... ( )
  jkdavies | Jun 14, 2016 |
I love these books! So interesting and image-filled! I know some people haven't liked this as much as Sea of Poppies but I don't see how you couldn't love River of Smoke if you enjoyed Sea of Poppies. ( )
  ltfitch1 | Jun 5, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 44 (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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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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:58:43 -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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