Thursday, March 5, 2009

"Sea of Poppies" by Amitav Ghosh

Summary: Set in 1830's India, Sea of Poppies follows the stories of disparate people who are thrown together on the ship the Ibis. These people include Zachary, a freedman from Baltimore who is assumed to be the son of a rich white American family; Deeti, an Indian woman on the run from her dead husband's family; Paulette, a young Frenchwoman seeking to start a new life; and Neel, a wealthy Indian landowner turned convict. On the ship, former social barriers and pretensions begin to fall away as new relationships are forged.

Musings: First, I must confess: I'm a book cover snob. Whenever I'm near a bookstore, I like to browse the shelves looking for new books to get from the library, and I'm super picky about the books I'll pick up. Photograph on the cover? Nope. Cheesy font? Nope. Neon colors? Nope. So, I must confess that I first picked up this book because of its beautiful cover. Set on a solid persimmon background, Sea of Poppies has beautiful light blue poppies floating onto the cover behind the gold ringed letters of the title.

To that end, I guess I was fortunate that I ended up with a wonderful story. Sea of Poppies is, first and foremost, an exciting adventure story. Unlike the many books recently that meditate on human thought and existence (see previous rants on this topic), Poppies is too busy covering the stories and backgrounds of its many characters to spend too much time on the meaning of life. There are many important characters, but Ghosh takes time to set up each person as an individual with motives and desires. The story trips quickly forward and, despite the obvious hardships for many of the characters, is full of unexpected moments of love and hope that kept me smiling. Things may turn out more or less okay in the end, but the novel does not seem trite. I found myself rejoicing with each character's small success.

Part of Ghosh's talent lies in making so many different characters seem believable and sympathetic. I instantly fell in love with Zachary, who tries hard to prove himself in a new world. I similarly loved Deeti, whose strength and willingness to start anew forms the backbone of much of the book.

The Indian backdrop of the novel (and many of the characters) is really interesting. I know little about Indian culture during British rule, and it was fascinating to see the roles of caste and family in the characters' lives.

The most challenging part of the book is its language. Probably close to a fifth of the words in the book are Indian/British/Chinese/nautical words and slang. Whole paragraphs would go by when I had little idea what was being said (and these certainly aren't words that appear in Merriam Webster's). Early on Zachary makes a comment about the words making sense when you resign yourself to them, and I found this case. Although I certainly couldn't define most of the words independently, when read smoothly in context enough got through.

Only once I had started the book did I see that it is the first of a trilogy. I'm a little disappointed that I'll have to wait to find out more (and this book ends with a big cliff-hanger), but I'll be around for the second.

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