Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh has written nine novels, as well as several non-fiction books, but so far my experience of his work has been confined to Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke and Flood of Fire, three novels known as the Ibis Trilogy, which are set in China and India during the First Opium War of 1839-1842. I loved those books, so even though his new one, Gun Island, sounded completely different, I was still looking forward to reading it.

Unlike the Ibis Trilogy, Gun Island is set entirely in the modern day. Our narrator, Dinanath Datta – known as Deen – has been leading a quiet, uneventful life in Brooklyn as a dealer of rare books. In fact, sometimes it is too quiet and uneventful. Approaching his sixties and feeling very alone in the world, Deen visits Bengal, the place of his birth, in the hope of meeting someone special with whom to share the rest of his life. Instead, he meets a distant relative who tells him the story of the Gun Merchant, a legendary figure who had dramatic adventures at sea while fleeing the wrath of the snake goddess Manasa Devi, before taking refuge on the island of Bonduk-dwip or ‘Gun Island’, a land free of serpents.

As Deen digs deeper into the legend and embarks on a journey to one of the historical sites associated with the story, he enlists the help of his friends Piya, a Bengali-American teacher, and Cinta, an Italian academic. But it is not until he gets to know two young men – Tipu and Rafi, who help him to see the world from another perspective – that Deen finally begins to unravel the riddles of the Gun Merchant.

The first half of the novel, set in India and America, is fascinating; I particularly enjoyed Deen’s visit to the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans. Although I found the pace quite slow, I loved the exploration of the Gun Merchant legend and what its true meaning may have been. Amitav Ghosh is obviously an author who likes to play with words and language, something which is more prominent in Sea of Poppies and its sequels but is apparent in this book too. We – and Deen – soon discover that some of the names of places and people mentioned in the legend could mean something entirely different than they initially seemed to.

Two other themes play an important part in the novel and both are hugely relevant to modern life: climate change and migration. These are introduced into the story gradually at first, as Deen’s friends share their theories of how increasing temperatures and rising water levels are leading to the movement of both wildlife and people. In the second half of the book, however, after the action switches to Venice and begins to focus on the stories of migrants who have made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean from Libya, the story seems to lose its way. Ghosh clearly feels passionate about these issues, but the way he incorporates them into the novel is a bit too heavy-handed and at times I felt as though I was reading a long essay or an article in The Guardian instead of a work of fiction. I think part of the problem is that we see everything from Deen’s perspective and, for most of the book, he is a passive onlooker, listening to accounts of other people’s experiences rather than experiencing things for himself.

Gun Island is an interesting read but the balance between the story and the message isn’t quite right. There are also far too many coincidences, with Deen meeting people by chance whom he had previously met on the other side of the world. As I did enjoy those other books by Amitav Ghosh, I would be happy to try more of his work, but this particular novel just wasn’t for me.

This is book 3/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

8 thoughts on “Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh

  1. Café Society says:

    I loved Sea of Poppies, which I really thought should have won the Booker the year it was short-listed. I have read several reviews of this new one, however, which all echo what you say about it loosing its way and I have so much else to read at the moment that I’m afraid this isn’t going to make the cut.

    • Helen says:

      I don’t think this book quite knew whether it wanted to be fiction or non-fiction. There were some interesting ideas, but they weren’t expressed in a very compelling way. I don’t think you would be missing too much by not reading it.

    • Helen says:

      This was an interesting book but disappointing after enjoying the Ibis Trilogy so much. I don’t know if I want to read any of his others.

  2. Jason says:

    Good novels have grand themes that go beyond the story. It is one of the things that separates literature from other forms of storytelling, but it is important to get the balance right. If the theme dominates the story it can feel a bit ‘preachy’; if the theme is absent, you may have a great story, but it meant nothing more or you were not moved by it. It sounds like Ghosh got the balance a bit wrong here. I follow Ghosh on Twitter. He’s certainly passionate about certain issues. I’m not sure I agree with some of the solutions he advocates but I admire his spirit. I loved the Ibis Trilogy too – it has its big themes too, but it got the balance pretty spot on. I will definitely be reading more of his work but I’m unsure about this one.

    • Helen says:

      This book did come across as quite preachy, even though I agreed with a lot of what Ghosh was saying. The balance definitely wasn’t right, in my opinion, and I felt that his views on climate change and migration could have been worked into the story in a more natural way, rather than giving us such long sections of exposition.

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