Title: Sea of Poppies
Author: Amitav Ghosh
Release Date: October 14, 2008
Genre: Literary Fiction, Multicultural Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Sea of Poppies is the story of several disparate individuals in India, including Zachary, a man who left America in order to escape his fate, Deeti, the wife of an opium farmer, a raj named Neel who will ultimately be brought down by the British, and many more. All of these people end up together on the Ibis, a ship transporting Indian coolies to work in the Mauritius Islands.
I first heard about Sea of Poppies when it was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize, and I thought it sounded fascinating. I don’t know a lot about this time period in Indian and Asian history and I was eager to learn and really take this book in.
The setting of Sea of Poppies is in India in 1838, which is on the eve of the Opium Wars between Britain and China. Indeed, opium farming is central to this novel. Ghosh explores what the British-mandated conversion of regular crop fields to poppy fields did in India and the harm it caused the native people. There is a lot of social exploration and commentary within this book’s pages, and it’s handled very well. From caste issues to widow burnings, Ghosh isn’t afraid to take on serious problems within Indian society and explore them fully.
I also loved how detailed Sea of Poppies was with history. Ghosh clearly researched this time period fully, inserting enough detail to allow the reader to see the scenes in their mind. He depicts life in the 1830’s masterfully, from village to city life to life on a ship. Ghosh’s elegant writing also contributes to his ability to vividly portray scenes just through his words. The style of the novel is simply beautiful; it is grand and lush, a real achievement.
There were times when Sea of Poppies was a difficult read. This is not a book to be rushed. Its prose is meant to be savored, its issues meant to be contemplated, its characters meant to be explored. I would not recommend reading this novel if you are going to try to read it cover to cover in one sitting. Instead, you should read slowly, digesting each individual word as you go. It’s not a book you can read quickly, even if you want to.
I very much enjoyed Sea of Poppies and am thrilled that it is the first in a trilogy. I really liked getting to know the characters, as Ghosh drew them masterfully, and cannot wait to revisit them in future volumes.