Sea of Poppies – Amitav Ghosh

The first thing I noticed when I picked up this book was its colour. It caught my eye and I thought of it as unique. The second thing I noticed, as I flipped through its pages—picking at the prose was its style.

I stopped at a page, and it was this one particular passage caught my eye.

“It was a single poppy seed…she rolled it between her fingers and raised her eyes past the straining sails, to the star-filled vault above. On any other night she would have scanned the sky for the planet she had always thought to be the arbiter of her fate – but tonight her eyes dropped instead to the tiny sphere she was holding between her thumb and forefinger. She looked at the seed as if she had never seen one before, and suddenly she knew that it was not the planet above that governed her life: it was this minuscule orb – at once bountiful and all-devouring, merciful and destructive, sustaining and vengeful. This was her Shani, her Saturn.”

I was hooked and there was no going back.

Sea of Poppies was 2008 finalist for the Booker prize. As the first instalment of the Ibis trilogy, It’s of a standard that leaves you wanting more and more.

Although not the most artistic of writers, his narrative is powerful, both politically and historically – the hallmarks of its fascination.

Set during the eve of the Opium wars, Amitav Ghosh writes a novel not about China, where the military conflict took place, but the lands in which the opium was produced – India.

Set on the Ibis, a former slaveship, a cast of characters are brought together, a mottled mix of passengers and crew. This style of his has left his characters at times bland and overwritten. Deeti, one of the protagonists for example, is the widow of an opium addict and a little bit prophetic. However it’s this very forcefulness of the characterisation that is its strength.

Where the characters begin to succumb beneath the weight of their narrative, it’s their dialogue that truly brings them to life. Each character’s language is unique, speaking with idioms and a historical jargon that is captivating as it is bewildering to follow.

Although very much about opium and historical authenticity, Sea of poppies is more generous in its characters –their strengths as well as their failings.

It’s those flaws that make the characters believable and I would recommend it to anyone interested. Although the characters tend to outshine their plot, the history in itself is accurate. There is cultural imperialism, such that it chills you to your bone. There are coolies and there is a love for opium. If anyone is interested in a fictional account of the opium wars, this is the one.

Explore your fiction, and love your reality.

Nam Nguyen.

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6 thoughts on “Sea of Poppies – Amitav Ghosh

      1. I guess? It’s something you can learn to appreciate and it dies differ per author. Although belonging to that category, I found this one to be one of the easier reads

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