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Sea of Poppies (2008)

by Amitav Ghosh, Amitav Ghosh

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Ibis Trilogy (1)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
3,0881504,330 (3.96)2 / 746
Preparing to fight China's nineteenth-century Opium Wars, a motley assortment of sailors and passengers, including a bankrupt rajah, a widowed tribeswoman, and a free-spirited French orphan, comes to experience family-like ties that eventually span continents, races, and generations.
  1. 80
    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (booklove2)
    booklove2: Very similar in writing style and general events.
  2. 60
    Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (BookshelfMonstrosity)
  3. 30
    The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh (Booksloth)
  4. 20
    The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (suniru)
  5. 10
    The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh (gennyt)
  6. 10
    River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh (sturlington)
    sturlington: The sequel to Sea of Poppies.
  7. 00
    The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye (mcenroeucsb)
  8. 00
    Raj by Gita Mehta (mcenroeucsb)
  9. 00
    Ten Cities That Made an Empire by Tristram Hunt (wandering_star)
  10. 00
    Barkskins by Annie Proulx (JoEnglish)
  11. 00
    Golden Hill by Francis Spufford (wandering_star)
  12. 00
    Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter (Limelite)
    Limelite: A panorama of representative characters sail on ocean voyages in allegorical novels set on the eve of great historical events.
  13. 00
    Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth (jigarpatel)
    jigarpatel: Appreciated by the Booker prize, Sacred Hunger (1992 winner) and Sea of Poppies (2008 finalist) are powerful and well-researched indictments of British imperial trade interests. They explore slave and opium trade routes respectively, combining adventure with multi-threaded plots and sensitive characterisation.… (more)
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» See also 746 mentions

English (136)  Italian (5)  French (2)  Catalan (2)  Norwegian (2)  Spanish (2)  Vietnamese (1)  All languages (150)
Showing 1-5 of 136 (next | show all)
A rollicking adventure with a wide ensemble of characters, set in the mid-19th century. The main theme is the production and distribution of opium, and how it affects the different stratas of society in India. The underlying theme is the evil of mercantile collonialism. Lots of the story takes place in and around one of the ships that will transport the opium, so there is lots of ship-lore and salty language.

In fact language is one of the predominant features of the book - particularly how it crosses different cultures (there is an extensive semi-fictionalised glossary devoted just to that). At first, I found the extremely stylised dialogue a little self-conscious and off-putting - even annoying. But eventually I decided that I should just enjoy the fun of it, much as I assume Ghosh was having fun writing it.

When the ending arrives it all feels very sudden, leaving a slight dissatisfaction. But it's a transporting adventure story - not exactly life-changing, but illuminating and enjoyable.

Update - just saw that this is part of a trilogy, making the sudden ending more understandable (though still a bit unfulfilling). May probably read the sequel at some point. ( )
  thisisstephenbetts | Nov 25, 2023 |
Thoroughly researched! Wonderful characters. ( )
  harishwriter | Oct 12, 2023 |
Opium wars, the high seas, imperialism and colonialism. The Ibis, an ex-slave ship is re-fitted to carry opium and indentured servants, becomes the focal point of the story as far-flung characters start to converge. Deeti is fleeing her dreadful rapey brother-in-law, Zachary has fled racism and accidentally jumped up a class or two, Neel is on his way to prison and Paulette, too seeks a better future.

This is rich, evocative, and full of complex language and details. I can see why it was Booker shortlisted, they all seem to have that intensely personal, wordy style.

I want to love this more than I do, the (realistic) sexual violence makes me angry and sad and my willingness to experience it in fiction when I have to put up with it in life is very low.
  Black_samvara | Aug 9, 2023 |
Aaaah! What an ending! Why didn't Deeti and Paulette go with Kalua and Jodu? Why did they stay on the Ibis despite the trouble they're going to face?

Ahem. Yes. I was very engaged, and this book is the first in a trilogy and it does not have a nice, tidy little ending to hold you over until the second installment. Fortunately, I already have the sequel lined up.

After slogging through my Portugal books, I needed something right up my alley. Epic historical fiction set at sea with a HUGE cast of diverse characters is exactly that--with a few caveats. For one, the Ibis doesn't actually get out to sea until the last quarter of the book. Okay, I guess that's the only caveat.

There are a lot of reasons that people might not like this book: the large number of characters (I'll try to outline the narrators below for the sake of my memory) and the often difficult to parse dialect. The laskars--the common sailors from all over the world (mostly Asia)--have their own words for sailing terms, the British have contemporary slang, a French character has her accent written out, and many of the Indian and other Asian characters have their pigdin mix languages written literally. Only when characters who know each others language and culture intimately speak to each other is their dialogue written in our modern English, without quotation marks. You learn to roll with it (and I loved it) but you have to be patient.

Anyway, here's our scene: In the 1830s, the Ibis is a former slave ship meant to be converted to hauling opium; however, China bans the trade before she reaches Calcutta for refitting, so until the inevitable and inevitably quick opium war is over, her owner converts her to something closer to her original purpose: carrying indentured servants, or girmitiyas, to Mauritius.

Our large cast of characters includes (in no particular order):

>> Deeti, a young widow from an inland village in India on the run from her past with Kalua, a kind ox-cart driver well beneath her caste;
>> Zachary Reid, an octroon carpenter from the U.S. passing for white, who with the help of the mysterious and influential laskar Serang Ali rises to the position of second mate on his first voyage.
>> Raja Neel Rattan Halder, the zemindar of Raskhali, who finds on his father's death that the opulent lifestyle he grew up with has left his
>> Paulette Lambert, daughter of a French botanist and, since his death, a ward of Mr. Burnham, owner of the Ibis and one of the wealthiest merchants in Calcutta.
>> Jodu, a Muslim Bengali, who grew up like a brother to Paulette, since their parents carried on a loving affair until their deaths.
>> Baboo Nob Kissin, an accountant for Mr. Burnham, but also a man who believes so devoutly in the saintliness of the woman he loved that he begins to manifest her in himself, slowly taking on her mannerisms and appearance.

On the periphery of these characters are so many more: sailors, passengers, captains, judges, merchants, relatives, convicted criminals, opium addicts... The huge variety of people, places, and circumstances kept the book clipping along. It's a lot to keep track of--again, something some people won't like--but perfect for me.

It's been long enough since I finished reading this (life's getting busier these days) that I'm just going to jump into my quotes.

Quote Roundup

p. 15) I bookmarked this page early on because it hinted at how many differences lay ahead compared to my usual sea stories:
[Zachary] had to get used to 'malum' instead of mate, 'serang' for bosun, 'tindal' for bosun's mate, 'seacunny' for helpsman; he had to memorize a new shopboard vocabulary, which sounded a bit like English and yet not: the rigging became 'ringeen', 'avast!' as 'bas!', and the cry of the middle-morning watch went from 'all's well' to 'alzbel.' The deck now became the 'tootuk' while the masts were 'dols'; a command became a 'hookum' and instead of starboard and larboard, fore and aft, he had to say 'jamna' and 'dawa', 'agil' and 'peechil'.
Needless to say, I referred to this page several times. I honestly found it more helpful than the meta-glossary in the back, which didn't have all the words and sometime seemed to assume you knew what the word meant and were only interested in its history.

p. 37) As for Deeti, the more she ministered the drug [slipping opium into her mother-in-law's food and drink], the more she came to respect its potency: how frail a creature was a human being, to be tamed by such tiny doses of this substance! She saw now why the factory in Ghazipur was so diligently patrolled by the sahibs and their sepoys--for if a little bit of this gum could give her such power over the life, the character, the very soul of this elderly woman, then with more of it at her disposal, why should she not be able to seize kingdoms and control multitudes? And surely this could not be the only such substance upon the earth?

p. 77) Wealthy merchant Benjamin Burnham, owner of the Ibis, tells Zachary that the boat won't be used for opium trade immediately, while the Chinese are pushing back against the trade.
'Till then, this vessel is going to do just the kind of work she was intended for.'
... 'D'you mean to use her as a slaver, sir? But have not your English laws outlawed that trade?'
... 'Yes indeed they have, Reid. It's sad but true that there are many who'll stop at nothing to halt the march of human freedom.'
'Freedom, sir?' said Zachary, wondering if he had misheard.
... 'Isn't that what the mastery of the white man means for the lesser races? As I see it, Reid, the Africa trade was the greatest exercise in freedom since God led the children of Israel out of Egypt. Consider, Reid, the situation of a so-called slave in the Carolinas--is he not more free than his brethren in Africa, groaning under the yoke of some dark tyrant?'
Zachary tugged his ear-lobe. 'Well sir, if slavery is freedom then I'm glad I don't have to make a meal of it. Whips and chains are not much to my taste.'
I would not be surprised if Mr. Burnham's comments reflect some that Ghosh read somewhere. Ugh, people can be horrible. And the worst of it is that Zachary's mother has slavery just a few years in her rear-view mirror and he has to put up with this crap to stay in his employer's good graces.

p. 113) Mr. Burnham is full of a lot of crap.
'One of my countrymen has put the matter [of the opium trade] very simply: "Jesus Christ is Free Trade and Free Trade is Jesus Christ." Truer words, I believe, were never spoken. If it is God's will that opium be used as an instrument to open China to his teachings, then so be it.'
God really didn't have anything to do with it, dude. I don't remember much from this part of my history class, but I do know that!

[Life got in the way. It's about to get even more in the way. I'm going to call it quits on this review so I can at least chart which books I've read!] ( )
1 vote books-n-pickles | Jun 19, 2023 |
Sweeping historical saga that tells of the devastating consequences of colonialism through the individual stories of a large cast of characters. It features the crew of the sailing ship Ibis, laborers from small villages in India, opium users, a widow, a French orphan, an ex-Raja, and other members of multiple Indian castes. The storyline switches among groups of characters, and by the end, their independent storylines have converged. The featured people (African, Asian, and westerners) are ordinary people caught in the crossfire of historical forces beyond their control.

I found the first half, which introduces the many characters, extremely slow paced. The text is peppered with various dialects, which occasionally interrupts the flow. But the reader’s patience is rewarded in the second half. I’ve read other books by Amitav Ghosh and find him an excellent storyteller. His writing is elegant, and characters are distinctive. The time period is meticulously drawn, including numerous languages, foods, clothing, colloquialisms, religions, funeral rites, cultures, and justice system. This novel’s ending sets up the next book in the trilogy.
( )
  Castlelass | Oct 30, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 136 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (12 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Amitav Ghoshprimary authorall editionscalculated
Ghosh, Amitavmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Gobetti, NormanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nadotti, AnnaTranslatorsecondary authorsome 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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Preparing to fight China's nineteenth-century Opium Wars, a motley assortment of sailors and passengers, including a bankrupt rajah, a widowed tribeswoman, and a free-spirited French orphan, comes to experience family-like ties that eventually span continents, races, and generations.

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Haiku summary
Raja et coolies
Se retrouvent tous sur l'Ibis
Cap sur l'Ile Maurice
(Tiercelin)

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