This second installment in Ghosh's intended Ibis Trilogy had me anxious from the outset. There's a tension in moving through long-narrative fare, tracking many characters over extended time, geography and divergent plot lines. You get nestled comfortably into the personalities and direction, only to have the next installment re-shuffle the deck. I was eager to settle back in. While the focus and shift in characters was choppy and unclear at first*, he eventually settles into his new narrative paths without leaving the rich seam of (re-cast) continuity behind.
The Ibis Trilogy traces out different facets and of the 19th C. opium trade, with Canton as the locus of this installment (moving away from Bombay and India as the setting for Sea of Poppies, where the opium is produced and shipped out). Gateway to all international exchange with China, it becomes the blockade to run for opium merchants/smugglers. The characters all experience the outbreak of the first Opium War from different perspectives, interests and levels of intimacy, providing a tense and rich historical backdrop for the tale. This and the broad cast of characters from far flung corners of the earth also act as reminders of how advanced globalization was even at this time, and the place of the opium trade in nurturing and accelerating this process.
|19th C. Canton, with what I assume to be Fanqui town (based on the various flags) in the distance beyond the harbour. This foreign enclave was where the non-Chinese merchants were housed, denied access to much of the rest of the city.|
|Too much of this is bad news for China.|
I'm anxious to see the third installment, of course. Ultimately, it's how this grand narrative rounds out that will determine the full place of this second volume, and it's potential for greatness. Pending resolution to the trilogy, this fine volume can only rate a steak knives.