Sea of Poppies is the first book in the Ibis Trilogy by Amitav Ghosh and introduces us to a large and diverse cast of memorable characters who are thrown together on a voyage from India to Mauritius aboard a former slaving ship, the Ibis. Set in the 1830s just before the First Opium War, this is a long, detailed novel (and also quite a challenging one due to the various styles of dialogue and language Ghosh uses) but once I became familiar with the characters and their stories I found myself enjoying it more and more.
Each of the novel’s main characters comes from a different background and a different set of circumstances has led to each one being on board the Ibis, whether as a migrant, a prisoner or a member of the crew. Inevitably I found some of the characters more interesting than others; I was particularly intrigued by Neel Rattan Halder, the Raja of Raskhali, who is arrested for forgery and dispossessed of his lands, by Deeti, widowed after her husband succumbs to his opium addiction, and by Paulette Lambert, the orphaned daughter of a French botanist. These three people and many others are brought into the story one by one, but eventually their paths meet as the Ibis prepares to set sail for Mauritius.
I’m not really a big fan of novels set on ships (Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series is one of the few exceptions) so I was pleased to find that there are plenty of land-based sections in this one too. The descriptions of India are colourful and vivid throughout the novel, but the scene that sticks most in my mind is one from the beginning of the book which describes Deeti’s visit to the opium factory where her husband works. The author doesn’t shy away from showing us the horrors of opium addiction and withdrawal, as well as the health problems suffered by those who had to work with the drug and the trouble caused by so much land having to be devoted to poppy growth rather than other crops which could be eaten as food.
I’ve already mentioned that Amitav Ghosh uses language in some unusual ways in this novel, so I’ll try to explain what I mean. As well as Bengali and Hindi words being scattered throughout the pages, the Indian sailors (known as Lascars) have their own terminology, one of them (Serang Ali) speaks a form of pidgin English to communicate with the American second mate, Zachary Reid, while the European characters also draw on a stock of words and slang terms taken from various different languages. As you can imagine, when characters from different cultures are speaking to each other, things often become very complicated! A glossary would have made reading this book a lot easier, but unfortunately there wasn’t one (at least not in the edition that I read) so I just had to struggle along and console myself with the knowledge that sometimes the characters in the book were just as confused as I was!
Sea of Poppies was a fascinating read, but I was left with the feeling that it wasn’t a complete novel in itself – it finishes on a cliffhanger and with so many loose ends that reading the second book in the trilogy really is essential if you want to know what happens to the characters you’ve come to know and care about. I started River of Smoke immediately after finishing this one!