For my book club last month, we read Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies. I haven’t written about it until now partly because I’m lazy and busy, but also partly because I’m not sure exactly what to say about it—a trend I am finding to be true more and more with my book club’s selections.
Sea of Poppies is sort of a difficult book to read. It’s the story of a ship, the Ibis, and its crew, shedding light on a particular moment in history, when British colonialism still ruled India, and the 19th-century Opium Wars were just around the corner. The crew is a mish-mosh bunch from various walks of life, all part of a society in which caste and place hold significance and left to wonder how much that matters when you’re all thrown on a ship together.
This is the first of a planned trilogy, and therefore feels more epic in stature than a standalone novel would. It can be very hard to follow from the beginning. Its structure reminded me a great deal of The Known World, also a book club pick, because many different characters are thrown at you from the beginning, and you feel like you’re rushing around to keep track of them all. The novel begins feeling more like a collection of scenes that eventually come together as a cohesive story as the characters begin to interact and overlap.
Ghosh says that inspiration for this story first came because he wanted to tell about the lives of Indian indentured workers which were inextricably linked to British colonialism. Sea of Poppies highlights the detrimental influence of this colonialism in India, and though this one is set immediately prior to the Opium Wars, opium still plays a huge role in the rise and fall of the characters. (And I believe that Ghosh’s planned sequels will get deeper into the Opium Wars.)
One reason this novel is hard to get into is because of the writing. Style and language shifts from character to character, including one character who speaks in pidgin English. It’s confusing for the reader, which I believe mirrors the confusion for the characters themselves as they are thrust in a setting and have trouble relating to each other. The longstanding divisions of race and class are broken down on the ship and a person’s future is determined by fortune’s wheel rather than their place in society. The usual rules of power and influence have been discarded. One of the characters, Captain Chillingworth, has a line that I found most descriptive of this story’s themes:
“Men do what their power permits them to do.”
I ended up liking Sea of Poppies, particularly after our discussion, but I have to be honest; it’s generally not my kind of story at all, and I doubt I would’ve liked it had I read it alone and without my book club. Call me a wimp, but I just don’t like to read about the darkness of man and how cruel people can be to each other (and this often seems to be the kind of story we read in book club). It’s just my own tastes. Regardless of the overarching theme or redeeming qualities, it’s hard for me to look past those things. Several people in my group thought this book amazing, but I just don’t have a desire to keep reading the trilogy.