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.

Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh

Flood of Fire Flood of Fire is the third and final part of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy and I think it’s probably my favourite of the three books. Set in India and China before and during the First Opium War, the trilogy follows the adventures of a group of people thrown together on board a former slaving ship called the Ibis.

This third novel pulls together threads from the first two and while it may be possible to still enjoy this book without having read the others, I would strongly recommend reading all three in order. While Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke took us through the build up to the conflict, describing the disputes over the trade of opium and the deterioration of relations between Britain and China, Flood of Fire covers the war itself.

The novel opens in 1839 and the first character we meet is Kesri Singh, brother of our old friend, Deeti. Kesri is a havildar (a rank equivalent to sergeant) in the Bengal Native Infantry, part of the East India Company, and through his storyline we are given some insights into army life and the contribution made by Indian regiments to Britain’s military victories in China. Next we are reunited with Zachary Reid, the American carpenter-turned-sailor who played a major part in Sea of Poppies but was absent from River of Smoke. In this book, Zachary begins an affair with his new employer, Mrs Burnham, before setting his sights on becoming a successful businessman.

We also rejoin Neel Rattan Halder, the former Raja of Raskhali, who is now living in Canton where he is able to use his skills as an interpreter to assist China’s war effort. Neel’s story is told mainly in the form of a journal and gives us a Chinese perspective of events. Finally, the widowed Shireen Modi is travelling to Hong Kong to visit the grave of her husband, Bahram, and to try to recover some of the money he lost when his cargo of opium was confiscated in River of Smoke. These are the four main characters in Flood of Fire, but other characters from the previous two novels also make appearances, including the French botanist Paulette Lambert; her childhood friend, Jodu; Bahram Modi’s illegitimate son, Ah Fatt (known as Freddie); and Baboo Nob Kissin, the Burnhams’ agent.

Before reading these books I knew nothing at all about the First Opium War, so this trilogy has provided a perfect introduction. Devoting three long novels to a relatively short period of history allows the author to go into a lot of depth, describing first the production of opium in India (Sea of Poppies), the merchants who transported the drug to China (River of Smoke) and finally, in Flood of Fire, the reasons why Britain went to war with China after the trading of opium was banned in Canton. The events of the war itself are given a lot of attention too, from descriptions of battles and strategies to the negotiations that would lead to the British acquisition of Hong Kong.

Although there were times when I felt too much time was being spent on one character and not enough on another, I did find all of their storylines compelling and interesting – with the exception of Zachary’s affair. It was obviously intended to add some comedy to the book, but it didn’t work for me at all and I didn’t think it fit the tone of the rest of the trilogy. Zachary is the character who changes the most over the course of the three novels – and not for the better; his transformation in Flood of Fire could be seen as an example of how greed and ambition can lead to corruption, and is written quite convincingly, but I still found it disappointing as he was such a likeable person at first. As for the other characters, some of their stories end in happiness and others in sadness or tragedy, but I was pleased that they were all given a proper resolution.

The book finishes with a very long list of sources, showing the amount of research which must have gone into the writing of the Ibis Trilogy. We are told that these sources were taken from the archives of Neel Rattan Halder (one of the characters in the story) and that Neel and his descendants have left behind more information which has not yet been used. This gave me hope that, although Flood of Fire is the last of this particular trilogy, it would be possible for Amitav Ghosh to continue the story by moving forward to another period of history. Whether he does or not, I am still happy to have had the opportunity to read these three wonderful novels!

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

River of Smoke This is the second novel in Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy. The first, Sea of Poppies, was set just before the First Opium War and introduced us to a group of people who were brought together on a voyage from India to Mauritius aboard a former slaving ship. The book ended on a cliffhanger so I was pleased that I had a copy of River of Smoke to hand and wouldn’t have long to wait to find out how the story continued.

River of Smoke was not quite what I’d expected. It does continue the story, but only for two or three of the characters. The rest of them – even the ones we spent so much time with in Sea of Poppies, such as the Indian widow Deeti and the American sailor Zachary Reid – are barely mentioned in this book. The characters who do reappear are Paulette Lambert, the orphaned daughter of a French botanist, Neel Rattan Halder, the deposed Raja of Raskhali, and his Chinese friend, Ah Fatt.

In one thread of the novel, we follow Paulette as she joins forces with Fitcher Penrose, an Englishman whom she meets in the neglected botanical garden of Pamplemousses. Together, Penrose and Paulette head for Canton where, with the help of Paulette’s childhood friend, the artist Robin Chinnery, they begin a search for the mythical golden camellia.

In a separate storyline which runs parallel with the first (and quickly begins to dominate the novel), we meet Ah Fatt’s father, Bahram Modi, an opium trader from Bombay. Bahram is transporting a large cargo of opium to China and agrees to take Neel with him as his munshi, or secretary. However, when a new commissioner arrives in Canton and the opium trade is banned, Bahram and his fellow merchants face financial ruin.

Like the first novel, River of Smoke provides us with a huge amount of historical and geographical detail. As someone who previously knew almost nothing about the Opium Wars, I now have a much better knowledge of what led to the conflict and the arguments that were used by both sides. Ghosh also brings to life the sights and sounds of Fanqui-town, the Canton settlement which was home to the foreign merchants. Unfortunately one of the devices he uses to do this involves beginning each chapter with a long letter sent by Robin Chinnery to Paulette, and this was one aspect of the book that I didn’t like at all. I had no interest in Robin as a character and it felt that his sole purpose in the novel was to write these letters, giving us pages and pages of exposition that did very little to move the story forward.

I have enjoyed both of the first two books in this trilogy, but I think I liked this one slightly more than the first. I was a bit disappointed when I discovered that River of Smoke wasn’t going to be a direct continuation of Sea of Poppies, but once I had settled into the story, I found it easier to follow because it concentrated on fewer main characters. Paulette and Neel had been two of my favourites from the previous book, anyway, and of the new ones, I found Bahram Modi a particularly well written and complex character. I couldn’t help but have some sympathy for him even though what he was doing was clearly morally wrong.

The final book in the trilogy, Flood of Fire, is due to be published soon and I’m looking forward to reading it. I’m hoping we’ll be able to catch up with the other characters from Sea of Poppies who didn’t feature in this one!

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Sea of Poppies 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!