Difficult Second Novel? – ‘River of Smoke’ by Amitav Ghosh

‘Sea of Poppies’ was a dense rich novel that rewarded patient reading. Ghosh showed himself to be masterful prose stylist, and artful employer of the English language. His tale of life on board a ship bound for the Mauritius was filled with vivid characters pressed together in claustrophobic quarters. The friction generated by the novel’s close quarters, drove the story to its thrilling cliffhanging conclusion.

Book two in the trilogy is once again filled with rich language and vivid imagery, but outside the confines of the ship the story feels flabby. The action opens some time after the close of ‘SoP’, but its intriguing climax is glossed over, and the tension it created drains away. It’s a few years since I read part one, and the opening of book 2 does not help those with poor memories. The cast of these novels is huge, and both a recap and dramatis personae would have been welcome.

As for the first book, I read the opening chapters of River of Smoke trying to piece together what was going on. The action predominately moves to China, specifically Canton, at the height of the Opium Wars. The multilayered society that serviced the importing of Opium into China, is so incredibly well drawn, it’s almost too detailed. Instead of plot we have description. In SoP all the groundwork paid dividends as everything is drawn together in the final chapters. Here that is not the case.

Ghosh makes little attempt to help his reader see the bigger picture in his trilogy. There are links to characters from the first book, but they are often tenuous. Whilst the central story is good, the chapters that wrap around it feel like filler. Some incidental characters are involved in a wild goose chase, searching for a rare camellia. Much of this hunt is detailed in letters from a camp artist to Paulette (from book 1), a female botanist denied access to the foreign enclave on the basis of gender. Whilst the letters are often funny, they are largely irrelevant, and become an annoying aside.

Characterisation is strong. All the major players in the politics of opium smuggling are described in full unscrupulous detail. Their vainglorious justification of the trade from which they make their fortune forms the backbone of this book. They use the supposed weakness of the Chinese to justify their peddling of opium, and take umbrage when the Chinese Emperor halts the trade, stopping the easy money it provides.

Ghosh portrays the opium smugglers as self-appointed pioneers of free trade. They justify their actions by citing economical expedience. Ghosh draws delightful parallels between the selfishness of the opium traders and the current banking crisis. He paints them as men who will cross any boundary to make a profit, no matter what the consequence for others. Yet when these profits are in danger, they look to hide behind the might of the British government. This portrayal of banker as opium peddler is a convincing device.

Against this backdrop we see the travails of the novel’s main character Bahram Modi. He is an Indian merchant who has worked his way up from nothing, to owning a ship of his own. The ‘Anahita’ is filled with opium, paid for by himself and a large number of investors. The stalemate in Canton could be ruinous for him, if he can’t offload his cargo.

As the novel progresses Bahram becomes more and more desperate. He is an interesting character; a Parsi Indian alone in a world of Englishmen and Americans. His opinion is respected, he is allowed into the circle of traders, yet he is an outsider. Barham is caught between two cultures, and walks the difficult line between gaining acceptance in one, whilst remaining true to his roots. As the crisis deepens, Bahram relies on his English counterparts seeing him as an equal. His plight worsens and the need for acceptance from the inner circle becomes more pressing. Happy to associate with Bahram when things are going well, how will they react when the pressure is on?

Ghosh’s writing oozes authenticity. The multi-layered society that surrounded Canton is described in painstaking detail. The melting-pot of cultures and languages feels accurately portrayed, particularly through the author’s use of language. The pidgin used by those with no tongue incommon may not be the easiest to read, but is another example of Ghosh’s eye for detail.

This review is rather long winded now, and I’m not sure I’m any closer to summing up the book. I was so absorbed by ‘Sea of Poppies’ I had huge hopes for River of Smoke. Hopes that weren’t realised. Whilst Ghosh’s use of language is as masterful as ever, too much extraneous description spoils a good central story. Perhaps my expectations were set too high, but I finished with a sense of dissatisfaction. Having said that, at book group we greatly enjoyed speculating where the final part of the series would go. I look forward to discovering who was right.

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5 thoughts on “Difficult Second Novel? – ‘River of Smoke’ by Amitav Ghosh

    1. Ghosh is a superb writer, this is the fourth of his I’ve read but this time I don’t think he got the description/story balance quite right. This was the view of all my book group too.

      1. I agree, I’m not put off by your review and comments at all, more of a warning, so it might even assist the reading by not expecting too much as one does when the content is completely unknown.

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