Monday, November 21, 2011

"River of Smoke" by Amitav Ghosh

When I first began River of Smoke, primarily about the opium trade in China by foreign merchants, I was a little doubtful. I'd absolutely loved Sea of Poppies, the precursor to River of Smoke in the Ibis trilogy, and had even named it one of my top ten books of 2009. But now, years later, I couldn't really remember why I liked the first book, and I almost felt reluctant in picking up this historical epic. However, I soon began noticing how immersed I was in the story and how quickly the pages flew by--in short, River of Smoke is as utterly engrossing as the previous novel.

This is truly something to commend Ghosh on, for in River of Smoke he has less sympathetic characters than in Sea of Poppies. Where that novel features poor lovers on the run and burgeoning young romance, River of Smoke's main protagonist is Bahram, an Indian opium trader, and its story focuses primarily on Bahram and the American and British traders pushing against China's decision to prohibit the sale of opium. Their cause is without merit and is presented so in the novel, yet the reader is still completely drawn in.

Interestingly, the novel has almost no female characters as women are not permitted in Canton, the primary city of foreign trade. Away from the influences of their traditional society (and women), the men live a different way of life. Male friendships are deep, and the men even dance together at functions! Although there's some teasing from others, it's normal for some men take other men as "Friends" and pursue long term relationships. Furthermore, men of different races, ethnicities, and nationalities mix and socialize together in a way that never would have been possible in England or the U.S.

Of course, when push comes to shove and Chinese officials begin cracking down on the traders, this world also starts crumbling. Homophobic epithets are thrown at those who sympathize with the Chinese objectives, and Bahram recognizes that he'd quickly be sacrificed for an American or British man. It's at this point that Bahram becomes particularly sympathetic. Overall, he is a good man succeeding in a way very few Indian men could at this point, a time in which their country was controlled by the British. He has succeeded in being respected among his fellow merchants, yet that's not enough to ensure him protection in the end.

I was worried that having forgotten much of Sea of Poppies would be a detriment, but River of Smoke is more a companion novel than a sequel. Though some characters reappear from the previous story, this novel is a wholly separate story, not a continuation, and it would not be necessary to read Sea of Poppies to read River of Smoke.

Ghosh is a talented storyteller. The entire world of the novel is rich in detail, and the use of local language and terms adds authenticity. He writes about a fascinating (and utterly shameful for the American and British) period in history, but it's his characters that bring the novel to life.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

1 comment:

  1. I felt very much the same way about this book when I read it. I wondered if my enjoyment would be lessened because I couldn't remember much about the first book (which I loved), but I ended up really enjoying it too.