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Sunday, 1 December 2013

Amitav Ghosh – River of Smoke

review by showhost Dec 2013
Apparently this is the second in the Ibis trilogy which I was unaware of when I read it so I don’t know if it makes any difference to the flow of the story if you read the first book (Sea of Poppies) before this.  I took it as a stand alone book.
This book was given to me by my mother-in-law Jean Thomas, she bought it then realized it wasn’t her ‘cup of tea’.  You can’t read it quickly, it needs concentration and at nearly 600 pages it takes a lot of that!
I found the book strange to start with & I didn’t know if I was going to finish it.  For the first 25 pages I found myself re-reading back over a couple of sentences to get my mind to understand what was written.  By page 30 it was starting to seep under my skin & I knew I would carry on reading the book.  But you need time & quiet to digest – there are quite a few characters and the story jumps around. The author grew up in Bangaldesh, India & Sri Lanka.
Quote from authors webpage: ‘In September 1838 a storm blows up on the Indian Ocean and the Ibis, a ship carrying a consignment of convicts and indentured laborers from Calcutta to Mauritius, is caught up in the whirlwind. When the seas settle, five men have disappeared - two lascars, two convicts and one of the passengers. Did the same storm upend the fortunes of those aboard the Anahita, an opium carrier heading towards Canton? And what fate befell those aboard the Redruth, a sturdy two-masted brig heading East out of Cornwall? Was it the storm that altered their course or were the destinies of these passengers at the mercy of even more powerful forces?’unquote
It centre’s around the Opium trade from India to Canton (china) in the 1800’s.  The description is complex, deep & informative.  It shows the arrogant hypocrisy of the British traders.  How dare these barbarian Chinese Mandarins tell them they can’t sell Opium – its free trade – we’re British and don’t care if it violates their laws!  Of course if it were the other way around then of course they wouldn’t be able to trade in Opium with Britain as it’s illegal, how impertinent.
This was the days of the Great British Empire, when Britain ruled the waves.  British East India Company & the American traders were making millions – the Chinese people were becoming uselessly addicted and dying.
It’s the slow build up to the penultimate showdown, when the traders were made to dispose of over 20,000 crates of balls of Opium, by the river which eventually fed into the sea.
Along side of this we have the botanical element from Cornwall as they traded in the plants which went to nurseries and Kew Gardens.  I didn’t quite get the need for the sections which were narrated in letters from Robin Chinnery (illegitimate, mixed-race, homosexual and fictional? son of George Chinnery, a real-life painter of South China scenes) to Paulette, one of the botanists.
There were very good characters in the story (the main one Bahram the Opium trader from Bombay)and the feel of the times and its people were well portrayed, it’s a story told from the opposite side presenting a different view.  It did lose me for a while somewhere in the middle of the book, I think the story lost its thread a little but I picked it up again. 
Of course the embargo didn’t last as the British & French gun boats arrived The first Opium War ensued & the trade opened up again – which I imagine is in the third book.
I found the book interesting and enjoyable

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