Monday, November 7, 2011

Amitav Ghosh's "Sea of Poppies." (Steak Knives)

I came to Amitav Ghosh by way of my core anthropology course as a first year grad student.  His fantastic 'In an Antique Land' was one of the texts we examined, as an instructive example in considering our own authorship, representation and positionality as aspiring ethnographers.

As it happened, Ghosh was in town for the 2000 International Festival of Authors at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre.  A fellow student and I attended an interview and reading, and had a chance to meet and chat briefly with Ghosh afterward.  (I also had him inscribe my 1st Ed. HC copy of 'The Glass Palace' - w00t!)

All that to say I've had great success with Ghosh's work, but it had been a long time without thinking to look him up again.  'Sea of Poppies' was brought into the house by my wife, actually.  It had been sitting around unread for a year or two, and I finally threw it on the stack.

'Sea of Poppies' is another great effort by the author.  The narrative centres on the Ibis, a former slave ship converted for use in ferrying coolies from Calcutta to Mauritius on the eve of the Opium Wars.  Despite its length (@ 500+ pages) and its collection of a great variety of narrative threads from a really diverse range of characters, it doesn't play out as a dense or daunting read.

I won't get in to specific characters and distinct story arcs, but I will say there's an impressive overall breadth of historical perspective and positionality - from the meekest to the most privileged, those at the top to those at the bottom of their luck, those with the best and those with the worst of intentions - all propelled or impelled toward the same shared odyssey on the Ibis through the black water beyond the delta of the Ganges.  Ghosh really does maintain an artful balance between big picture historical context and the personal lived experience (perhaps something I'm more attentive or alert to given my introduction to him with 'In An Antique Land').

Fair Warning; This is the first of 3 installments, so the close of 'Sea of Poppies' is an incomplete tale, as well as a cliffhanger of sorts.  The second installment, 'River of Smoke' is published in HC as of Sept, 2011.  I'm hoping Santa or similar will make a gift of this.  Regardless, it's well worth seeking it out to continue with this strong story, on somebody else's dime or my own...
Amitav Ghosh
Note: I've had this one finished for a week or two now, but just getting to the blog update now (largely owing to a good follow up read and other lifestyle obligations).

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