Sea of Poppies

Ghosh, Amitav

Book - 2008
Average Rating: 4 stars out of 5.
Sea of Poppies
Baker & Taylor
Preparing to fight China's nineteenth-century Opium Wars, a motley assortment of sailors and passengers establish family-like ties that eventually span continents, races, and generations.

McMillan Palgrave

A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2008
A Chicago Tribune Best Book of 2008
A Washington Post Best Book of 2008
An Economist Best Book of 2008
A New York Best Book of 2008
A Christian Science Monitor Best Book of 2008
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2008
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize

At the heart of this vibrant saga is a vast ship, the Ibis. Its destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean; its purpose, to fight China’s vicious nineteenth-century Opium Wars. As for the crew, they are a motley array of sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts.

In a time of colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a diverse cast of Indians and Westerners, from a bankrupt raja to a widowed tribeswoman, from a mulatto American freedman to a freespirited French orphan. As their old family ties are washed away, they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais, or ship-brothers. An unlikely dynasty is born, which will span continents, races, and generations.

The vast sweep of this historical adventure spans the lush poppy fields of the Ganges, the rolling high seas, the exotic backstreets of Canton. But it is the panorama of characters, whose diaspora encapsulates the vexed colonial history of the East itself, that makes Sea of Poppies so breathtakingly alive—a masterpiece from one of the world’s finest novelists.

& Taylor

Preparing to fight China's nineteenth-century Opium Wars, a motley assortment of sailors and passengers, including a bankrupt rajah, a widowed tribeswoman, and a free-spirited French orphan, comes to experience family-like ties that eventually span continents, races, and generations.

Publisher: New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c2008
Edition: 1st American ed
ISBN: 0374174229
Branch Call Number: FIC G
Characteristics: 515 p. : map ; 22 cm.


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Dec 11, 2014
  • simone_p rated this: 4.5 stars out of 5.

Ghosh does an excellent job of getting into the mindset of the different characters, and really makes you believe that you're living in their world. The adventure is captivating, and will leave you on edge until you pick up the next book in the series.

Dec 08, 2014
  • Chapel_Hill_KenMc rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

All I can say is, read this as soon as possible! One of the best novels I've read in some time, it's a combination literary work and adventure tale, with a fresh commentary on colonialism, racism, and identity. The British Raj from the perspective of an array of non-European characters. Brilliant! The really good news is it's just the first of a planned trilogy...

Mar 20, 2014
  • rab1953 rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

This book is a fascinating story of a diverse group of people, mainly from the Calcutta region, linked in the opium trade of the early 1800s and brought together on a schooner taking them all to Mauritius. Of particular interest for me was the depictions of the lives of each of them and their associates under British rule. The various characters receive a sensitive portrait, including a high-caste peasant woman who depends on the crop of poppies she grows; an Indian aristocrat who loses his lands to the British and ends up in a British jail; a river boatman and the French woman he grew up with; a religious devotee who wants to become, and thinks he is becoming, the female god he adores; and an American seaman of mixed African and American heritage. Ghosh portrays each member of this diversity of class and culture with such care and detail that each has a unique setting and character, and all have depth and solidity. Even the minor characters, such as the British traders who show up from time to time are given detailed portraits, if less sympathetic ones. The fortunes of some rise, while the fortunes of others (the majority it seems) plunge.
Also fascinating are the evocative images he paints – the opening descriptions of the poppy fields, or the opium factory, or the shipboard life, are clear pictures in my mind and remain with me after reading. The extraordinary incidents of setting the sail on the jib masts, or the monsoon tidal bore that sweeps up the Hooghly River, stand out like the stories that Jack London told of life at sea.
Ghosh’s language is playful and gives another level of appreciation. He picks up words from a variety of local languages, as well as maritime slang, and if the meaning is not always obvious, the sense of it is. This gives a bit of a sense of the complex ethnic inter-relations in the region and the apparent ability of local residents to communicate effectively, if not perfectly, over language barriers. Puzzling, though, is what looks like a glossary at the back of the book, apparently compiled by one of the characters, in a highly idiosyncratic style with meanings that sometimes seem to be entirely made up. But then, that is the nature of explanatory texts – they reflect the writer’s bias and sometimes mislead. Perhaps, given the history of the region, that’s why it’s such a central preoccupation in the writing.
More than character or exotic colour, what gives the book depth is the sociological observation – the relations between castes, between the imperial powers and their various underclasses, between genders, between religions. It’s a fascinating tapestry of different themes that gives me a much richer picture of southeast Asian lives than the simple types I had before reading the book. And, I like the way that Ghosh has some characters articulate imperialist rationalizing, although he is completely convincing in the language and attitudes expressed. His characters are not stereotypes in a set game, but complex individuals who hold certain beliefs that were, I believe, well established in their time (and it’s not hard to find reflections of them today).
The ending is abrupt, but simply sets up the next volume in the trilogy. I look forward to reading the next books to follow the stories that are introduced in this book.

Feb 01, 2012
  • wingan rated this: 4.5 stars out of 5.

Took me a while to get into the rhythm of this book but I was soon hooked! An excellent saga - looking forward to reading the next one in the trilogy.

Jan 21, 2011
  • samdog123 rated this: 4.5 stars out of 5.

I had heard this author was very good, so I recommended this book for my book club to mixed reviews. I really enjoyed the book--it's historical ficton about the opium trade. The first half of the book sets up and introduces the characters and the second involves the voyage on the ship, the Ibis. The ending leaves you hanging, however, this is the first in a trilogy of titles. Well worth a read if you enjoy historical fiction.

Nov 03, 2010
  • harvwall rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

Listened to the audio version. Wonderful narrator who captured the many voices perfectly. Great story. Can't wait for the next one.

Oct 19, 2010
  • rgally rated this: 4.5 stars out of 5.

Lovely prose and some wonderful characters. Dense and sometimes confusing but worth the read

Sep 08, 2010
  • Harriet_the_Spy rated this: 4.5 stars out of 5.

A Dickensian novel vividly describing the impact of the British opium trade on everyday Indians. The unforgettable main character is a village woman caught in world events: her ingenuity and bravery, and that of the other misfits she gathers around her, give her the means to escape to a new world.

And we're looking forward to the next book, to find out what happens when they get there.

Aug 03, 2010
  • jennturner rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

I agree with ds 123 - great book! I do know that it is the first in a trilogy, so I am looking forward to the next installment.

May 30, 2010
  • ds123 rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

A great read.

I was left wondering what happens next. There could be another book just as thick to finish the story.

I learned a lot about the period.


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