Sea of Poppies

By Amitav Ghosh

The Short Take:

Not just a great book, this has the earmarks of great literature. You feel the full gamut of emotions, from fury to laugh-out-loud. Ghosh creates amazing characters. The plot compels you to keep reading. A true epic in every sense. I am so glad I read this book.


My rave review comes with two caveats. But you must read further to learn them.

Sea of Poppies addresses issues of race, caste, policies, religion, opium, love, empires, honor, government, family…phew! Yet it is packed with action, drama, and twists of fate. Multiple story lines would be confusing if it weren’t for the fact that every major character (and many a minor one) is so distinctly drawn. Their world may be completely foreign in time and place and culture, yet their passions, fears, and hopes ring 100% true. 

Set mainly in India in the 1830s, this novel is populated by an international cast of heroes, villains, and some individuals who move from one category to the other. Starting as a half dozen or so individual stories, eventually all the plot lines converge as fate brings all together for a voyage to Mauritius.

Even when the book skips from character to character and story to story, Ghosh subtly lets you know there will be convergences. This sense of expectation makes the novel even more compelling. 

A Little Plot:

A woman’s opium-addicted husband dies, leaving her without hope. Through an odd set of circumstances, a young, free African-American rises rapidly in his career as sailor. An eminent Raja meets catastrophe. An orphaned French girl tried to adjust to her new life. A deeply religious man undergoes a startling transformation. 

And that’s just a taste of the bounty this book holds. 

Opium is the thread that binds this book together: Indians are forced to grow it, Chinese are pushed to consume it, fortunes flourish and fail because of it, economies are built on it, and wars are threatened to assure this cycle continues. Yet all that is mere backdrop against which a number of mesmerizing stories play out.

The roads for all will lead to a voyage on the ocean ship, Ibis; for some a voyage of hope, for others a voyage of fear and even death.

Those Caveats:

1. This is the first book in a planned trilogy so the ending is not fully satisfying. Though, believe me, it is far more so than the first book of the ever-popular Lord of the Rings.

2. The language can be very Jabberwocky at times. But even if the words don’t make sense to you, you still get the drift of what is being said. Once I let all that odd language just flow over me, I found it enhanced the novel’s mood. After all, sometimes the characters don’t understand each other, either.

Neither of these things should scare you away from this amazing book. But I believe in full disclosure.

For more about Amitav Ghosh and his books, click here.

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