Never before have I so badly wanted a drug dealer to win at his game.
Scarface, meet Seth Bahram Modi, the most sympathetic dope peddler in fiction.
Bahram is a Parsee entrepreneur in Canton, China, 1838, right before the Opium Wars. Will this poor-kid-turned-kingpin manage to sell his ridiculously large shipful of opium? Does he wiggle out of the clutches of his annoying in-laws and racist colleagues? Does he ever reconcile with his foul-mouthed girlfriend? I can't tell you, but I do know that I was rooting for Bahram all the way.
I finished reading the first volume of the Ibis trilogy surprised at the abrupt ending and eager to find out more about the complex lives of the characters that Ghosh had introduced his readers to. That storyline is so lightly glossed over here that I still want to know more about them; but that’s not how I feel about the characters in this book. The richness of character and setting that I liked so much in Sea of Poppies shifts to a new location with only a few of the original characters remaining. And some of the characters show up briefly at the beginning of the book never to reappear. I guess they are just holding space until they come back in the third volume, although perhaps it too will jump into something new.
There’s still a lot of period detail, although more than once I felt that Ghosh was piling on details from his research that didn’t contribute much to the novel. There are some interesting items – the life of the traders in Canton before the Opium Wars, for example, and the elaborate gardens of the wealthy Chinese. But these are rather slight compared to the first novel. More serious, however, is the fact that the characters are, to me at least, less interesting and more contrived. Some of them, such as Neel, the Indian prince reduced to pretending to be a Bengali secretary, or Robin, the painter who seems to be there simply to narrate conversations in a voice other than the author’s, were never convincing or sympathetic. Only Bahram, the Indian opium trader who has risen to the elite of the Canton bourgeoisie, is interesting for his own story, and its end is a slow anti-climax.
What is good here is Ghosh’s detailed depiction of the machinations and rationalizations of the British opium traders when the new Chinese governor moves to block the import and sale of opium. Ghosh reports on historical figures and gives them arguments from period texts. The convenient new philosophy of the invisible hand of free trade justifies a vast drug trade and wealth. Anything in violation of trade is anathema, in spite of criminal laws or the effect of drugs on the populace, in spite of the complete prohibition of similar trade in Britain. It’s interesting to see that a few traders argued against the trade on moral grounds, making their profits in other goods, although their objections are forcefully overruled by the majority. And while the traders demand that the Chinese government stay out of the market, they don’t hesitate to call on the British government to send gunboats to enforce their access to the market.
The opium trade is the central issue of the book, but it also touches lightly on a variety of other moral issues, from family relationships, true identities and forgeries to the sex trade, all within the larger context of imperialism and commercial exploitation. But what is the convoluted storyline about the golden camellia? The unattainable, perhaps non-existent, mystery of the Orient?
As in the first volume, the use of language adds an interesting note to the storyline. From nautical slang to the pidgin English that different groups of traders use to converse among each other, the language itself represents the complex relationships between the Indian, Chinese, English and international traders and labourers. The language both unites characters across cultural barriers, and divides them from each other and from a deeper understanding that comes with a shared language and culture. While I enjoyed sometimes stopping to look up unfamiliar words – to find, for example, that the non-Chinese are restricted to living in Fanqui-town, or White-ghost Town – the sense is clear enough that the language doesn’t slow down the narrative.
So overall, some of the elements that made the first volume so interesting are still here, but I found the first volume much more engaging. I’m not sure I’d be looking for the third volume if this was the only one I had read.
Agree with reviewers who found this book less riveting than Sea of Poppies. B/c although it's 2nd in triology, original characters do not always show up so you miss out on the follow-up, which I was looking forward to - let's be honest here. There was poetic justice of sorts for some who plied the poppy trade as if the do not know how harmful opium is as it's just a "product" to some: some product!
Steeped in history, Ghosh does a great job of building the sense and emotions of the time. It took me a while to warm up to this book, but soon I was hooked.
Can't wait for the final book in the series.
Part 2 of a trilogy. I missed the characters and the boat setting from the first book, but the reconstruction of opium-era canton and the foreign-enclave was really interesting.
the book got a little boring in the middle, but overall a very good middle book.
looking forward to the third and final one!
Loved this book! Always fascinated with Chinese history this did not disappoint. Wonderful characters depicted in the grungy foreign quarter of Canton. Historically rich and was so upset by events at the end I had to write the author. First book I've read by this author and looking forward to more. I don't think I lost anything having not read Poppies first. Am looking forward to Poppies and learning about events and characters referenced in River.
Eh, it was alright, just not really my cup of tea.
Great book , but read sea of poppies first if you can. Looking forward to the 3rd in the series.
this is a great author, intelligent writing and great character building.
Absorbing and enjoyable, a more straightforward narrative of historical events than "Sea of Poppies" and perhaps an easier read. I think I enjoyed the earlier book more but this is also very good. Looking forward to the 3rd novel.
Only a few of the characters from Sea of Poppies show up in this volume of the trilogy, which is much less action packed but more complex in character development.
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