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Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Sea of Poppies (original 2008; edition 2009)

by Amitav Ghosh

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1,788None3,902 (3.95)2 / 558
Title:Sea of Poppies
Authors:Amitav Ghosh
Info:Picador (2009), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 560 pages
Tags:fiction, India, opium, imperialism, sea travel

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Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh (2008)

19th century (32) 2009 (14) 21st century (15) Asia (15) booker prize shortlist (30) Calcutta (12) China (30) colonialism (19) fiction (239) historical (29) historical fiction (108) history (14) India (209) Indian (22) Indian literature (29) Kindle (8) library (9) literature (16) novel (39) opium (47) opium trade (15) Opium Wars (55) read (21) read in 2009 (10) sailing (9) ships (15) signed (12) to-read (62) unread (10) wishlist (11)

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English (109)  Italian (4)  Spanish (2)  Catalan (2)  Norwegian (2)  Vietnamese (1)  All languages (120)
Showing 1-5 of 109 (next | show all)
This book is a fascinating story of a diverse group of people, mainly from the Calcutta region, linked in the opium trade of the early 1800s and brought together on a schooner taking them all to Mauritius. Of particular interest for me was the depictions of the lives of each of them and their associates under British rule. The various characters receive a sensitive portrait, including a high-caste peasant woman who depends on the crop of poppies she grows; an Indian aristocrat who loses his lands to the British and ends up in a British jail; a river boatman and the French woman he grew up with; a religious devotee who wants to become, and thinks he is becoming, the female god he adores; and an American seaman of mixed African and American heritage. Ghosh portrays each member of this diversity of class and culture with such care and detail that each has a unique setting and character, and all have depth and solidity. Even the minor characters, such as the British traders who show up from time to time are given detailed portraits, if less sympathetic ones. The fortunes of some rise, while the fortunes of others (the majority it seems) plunge.
Also fascinating are the evocative images he paints – the opening descriptions of the poppy fields, or the opium factory, or the shipboard life, are clear pictures in my mind and remain with me after reading. The extraordinary incidents of setting the sail on the jib masts, or the monsoon tidal bore that sweeps up the Hooghly River, stand out like the stories that Jack London told of life at sea.
Ghosh’s language is playful and gives another level of appreciation. He picks up words from a variety of local languages, as well as maritime slang, and if the meaning is not always obvious, the sense of it is. This gives a bit of a sense of the complex ethnic inter-relations in the region and the apparent ability of local residents to communicate effectively, if not perfectly, over language barriers. Puzzling, though, is what looks like a glossary at the back of the book, apparently compiled by one of the characters, in a highly idiosyncratic style with meanings that sometimes seem to be entirely made up. But then, that is the nature of explanatory texts – they reflect the writer’s bias and sometimes mislead. Perhaps, given the history of the region, that’s why it’s such a central preoccupation in the writing.
More than character or exotic colour, what gives the book depth is the sociological observation – the relations between castes, between the imperial powers and their various underclasses, between genders, between religions. It’s a fascinating tapestry of different themes that gives me a much richer picture of southeast Asian lives than the simple types I had before reading the book. And, I like the way that Ghosh has some characters articulate imperialist rationalizing, although he is completely convincing in the language and attitudes expressed. His characters are not stereotypes in a set game, but complex individuals who hold certain beliefs that were, I believe, well established in their time (and it’s not hard to find reflections of them today).
The ending is abrupt, but simply sets up the next volume in the trilogy. I look forward to reading the next books to follow the stories that are introduced in this book. ( )
  rab1953 | Mar 13, 2014 |
I put this book on my to-read list after hearing an interview with Ghosh on the radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge (which is tied with Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me as my favorite radio show). The part of the interview I found most intriguing was the discussion about the language in the book, and that's a large part of what I enjoyed about the book itself. The amalgamation of Bengali, French, English, various other Indian and Chinese dialects, and 19th-century maritime patois made the reading somewhat slow-going at times, but I was surprised at just how much meaning I could glean from a sentence composed of words I couldn't necessarily define individually.

Ghosh's characters show their caste and breeding---or the caste and breeding they hope to project---through their choice of language. I enjoyed reading about the misunderstandings that happened because of the wide variety of languages the characters used, and how the characters choose to resolve these misunderstandings, if they choose to resolve them at all.

The ending was abrupt but fitting, and I find myself wanting to go back and read the book again to look for more clues about the direction the book will take. I did take some time to skim back through, but I've got too many other books to read to immediately re-read this one. It will be on my re-read list, though.

For the complete book review, please visit my blog, Imperfect Happiness. ( )
  ImperfectCJ | Feb 9, 2014 |
I didn't really get into this book as much as I expected. For one thing, much of it is written in the vernacular, which I found difficult to read and therefore harder to engage with. After finished it, it did not feel especially memorable. However, it did end with the sense that there is more story to come - I believe a sequel is on the way and I may well read it. ( )
  sbsolter | Feb 6, 2014 |

I started to read this three years ago and it has loitered on my unfinished books pile ever since. I managed about half, as the readable chapters were quite enjoyable, but then I'd hit the chapters full of local jargon and have absolutely no idea what was being said. Having lived in Dubai for many years I'd assumed I'd be able to untangle a lot of the Indian colloquialisms, but I was wrong - whole chapters were completely indecipherable. Hitting these chapters was like trying to drive into sand and eventually I admitted defeat.
Regretfully, I have given away the rest of the trilogy. ( )
  DubaiReader | Jan 1, 2014 |
Deeti, Kalua, Zachary, Serang Ali, Paulette, Neel and Baboo Kissin, I am afraid I have to abruptly dismiss our modest tea party. The biscuits are soggy, sandwiches are musty and the Darjeeling brew is insipid. So slip me some "black tar" and I’m off to the land of nocturnal rainbows bedecked with copulating gremlins.

Sea of Poppies irrespective to the fact of it being the preamble to Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy and the onset ambience of the epic Anglo-Chinese Opium War,falls short in capturing my nomadic temperament through its plain narrative and wobbly interpretation of its characters. Ghosh enthusiasts would decidedly contradict this retort labeling my Machiavellian analysis as act of lunacy or vernacularism (as this book was highly recommended by several 'neighborhood bookworms'). With the prospects of burning torches likely to be flung, SCREW YOU FUCKERS!!!! Comprehending this manuscript was a dreary stupor compelling me to seek solace in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.
( )
  Praj05 | Oct 22, 2013 |
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Amitav Ghoshprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Risvik, KjellTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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The vision of a tall-masted ship, at sail on the ocean, came to Deeti on an otherwise ordinary day, but she knew instantly that the apparition was a sign of destiny for she had never seen such a vessel before, not even in a dream: how could she have, living as she did in northern Bihar, four hundred miles from the coast?
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(...) dat de essentie van die transformatie gelegen was in een enkel woord (...)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312428596, Paperback)

The first in an epic trilogy, Sea of Poppies is "a remarkably rich saga . . . which has plenty of action and adventure à la Dumas, but moments also of Tolstoyan penetration--and a drop or two of Dickensian sentiment" (The Observer [London]).

At the heart of this vibrant saga is a vast ship, the Ibis. Her destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean shortly before the outbreak of the Opium Wars in China. In a time of colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a diverse cast of Indians and Westerners on board, from a bankrupt raja to a widowed tribeswoman, from a mulatto American freedman to a free-spirited French orphan. As their old family ties are washed away, they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais, or ship-brothers. The vast sweep of this historical adventure spans the lush poppy fields of the Ganges, the rolling high seas, and the exotic backstreets of Canton. With a panorama of characters whose diaspora encapsulates the vexed colonial history of the East itself, Sea of Poppies is "a storm-tossed adventure worthy of Sir Walter Scott" (Vogue).


(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:04:50 -0400)

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At the heart of this vibrant saga is a vast ship, the Ibis. Her destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean shortly before the outbreak of the Opium Wars in China.

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