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.

Before the Rains by Dinah Jefferies

Whenever I want a book to transport me to another country and another time, I need look no further than Dinah Jefferies. So far her novels have taken me to Ceylon, Malaya and French Indochina; this one, Before the Rains, is set in Rajputana, India, in the 1930s.

Our heroine, Eliza Fraser, has a passion for photography and hopes to build a career for herself as a photojournalist. When an old family friend and British politician, Clifford Salter, arranges for her to spend a year photographing the royal family of one of India’s princely states, she is both delighted and nervous. India is where she grew up and she still feels a connection to the land and the people, but it is also where, at the age of ten, she witnessed the death of her father in Delhi.

Arriving at the palace where she will live for the next twelve months, Eliza finds that not everyone is happy to have an outsider interfering in their affairs, especially when they discover that she is a widow. Other people, though, are much more welcoming – including Jayant Singh, the younger brother of Prince Anish. When Jay offers to escort Eliza around the countryside in search of subjects for her photographs, she is distressed by the poverty she sees and urges Jay to do something to help his people. In return, Jay helps her to understand the effect British rule has had on India. As they discuss these and other issues and get to know each other better, a friendship forms between them which quickly becomes something more…but Eliza knows that there can only be any future for them if Jay is prepared to defy both his family and the expectations of society.

Like all of Dinah Jefferies’ novels, this one features some lovely descriptive writing, bringing to life the sounds, colours, tastes and smells of India. But along with the beautiful descriptions, there are some brutal, horrifying ones, such as an account of a widow throwing herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre, followed by a discussion of the custom of sati, as well as the fates of unwanted baby girls and of women suspected of witchcraft. For all Eliza had spent her childhood in India, she had been insulated within the British community and it’s only now that she is going out on her excursions with Jay that she feels she is truly starting to understand the country, its history and its people.

Although I loved the setting, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed some of Jefferies’ others, which is mainly due to the fact that I found it predictable and too reliant on coincidences – there were at least two plot twists towards the end that I found completely unconvincing. I also struggled to believe in Eliza’s romance with Jay; I liked both characters, but I thought it seemed too convenient that on arriving at the palace Eliza would immediately catch the eye of a prince. Maybe I should have just been less cynical and more prepared to suspend disbelief.

This is probably my least favourite of Dinah Jefferies’ novels, but I’m still looking forward to reading her new one, The Missing Sister, which will be set in 1930s Burma.

Historical Musings #44: Exploring India

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction. Having just finished reading Before the Rains by Dinah Jefferies, in which a British photographer in the 1930s is sent to India to take pictures of the royal family of a fictional princely state, I thought it would be interesting this month to look at other historical novels set in India.

One of my all-time favourite historical fiction novels is The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye, set in 19th century British-ruled India. Last year I read one of Kaye’s other novels, Shadow of the Moon, which is also set in India, but in a slightly earlier period, covering the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. I read this as part of a readalong hosted by Cirtnecce who is from India and speaks very highly of M. M. Kaye’s writing and understanding of the country.

A similar book, and another one that I loved, is Zemindar by Valerie Fitzgerald, which again is set during the Mutiny. I also enjoyed In a Far Country by Linda Holeman, about the daughter of two British missionaries living in 19th century Lahore.

I can think of two dual-time period novels I’ve read which are set at least partly in India. One is The Midnight Rose by Lucinda Riley (in which the historical thread involves a girl who befriends an Indian princess in 1911) and the other is The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark, in which the action moves between 1947 and the 1850s, both important periods in India’s history.

I also loved The Strangler Vine by M. J. Carter, a fascinating historical mystery set in 1837 during the rule of the British East India Company. Then there’s Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer, a fictional biography of E. M. Forster, focusing on the time when Forster was working on the novel A Passage to India. A completely different sort of book is Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran, about Rani Lakshmibai who rules the state of Jhansi along with her husband, Raja Gangadhar Rao.

It seems that most of the historical novels I’ve read set in India have been from a non-Indian (usually British) perspective, but I have also read a few by Indian authors. One of these is The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan, the story of Mehrunissa, the future Empress Nur Jahan. This book is set much earlier than any of the others I’ve mentioned so far – in 17th century Mughal India. There’s also Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, which begins with Sea of Poppies, although the trilogy is set in China as much as in India and tells the story of the First Opium War.

A God in Every Stone is a novel by Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie, set in 1930s Peshawar where the Khudai Khidmatgar movement are attempting to bring an end to British rule in India. Finally, The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie is a magical realism novel which takes us to a 16th century India populated with giants and witches, where emperors have imaginary wives and artists hide inside paintings.

***

Now it’s your turn. Have you read any of these books? Which other historical fiction novels set in India can you recommend?

Shadow of the Moon by M.M. Kaye

I really have no idea why I haven’t read this book before now. The Far Pavilions has been one of my favourite books since I was a teenager, but for some reason it just never occurred to me to look into what else M.M. Kaye wrote until recently, when I read two of her Death In… mystery novels. When I saw that Cirtnecce was hosting a readalong of Shadow of the Moon this summer, it seemed the perfect opportunity to try another of Kaye’s historical novels in the hope that I would love it as much as The Far Pavilions!

Shadow of the Moon was originally published in 1957 and revised in 1979. Like The Far Pavilions, it is set in India, but at a slightly earlier time – before and during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Our heroine, Winter de Ballesteros, is born in Lucknow to an English mother and Spanish father. Orphaned by the age of six, Winter is sent to England to be raised by her great-grandfather, the Earl of Ware, but the country of her birth still holds a special place in her heart and she dreams of returning one day to the Gulab Mahal, the place she considers home.

Winter is eleven when she meets Conway Barton, who is visiting from India, and she is captivated by his good looks and his connection with the country she misses so much. Conway, with his eye on Winter’s fortune, suggests a betrothal, but it is not until six years later that Winter is old enough to go and join him in India for the wedding. Now Commissioner of Lunjore, Conway says that he is far too busy to escort his fiancée across the sea himself, so he sends his assistant, Captain Alex Randall, in his place. Unknown to Winter, however, her betrothed is no longer the man she thinks he is and has another reason for wanting to delay their meeting. Will the marriage take place or will Alex be able to change her mind during the long voyage to Lunjore?

There’s a romantic aspect to Shadow of the Moon, then, but the historical element is just as important. Cirtnecce has put together two excellent posts (here and here) describing the political landscape in India in 1857, how the country came to be ruled by the British East India Company and the factors leading to the rebellion. All of this is explored in a lot of depth throughout the novel, showing the same impressive level of research and the same understanding and sympathy for India and its people that I remember from The Far Pavilions.

The descriptions of India itself are wonderful and vivid. Whether she’s writing about the streets and bazaars of Lunjore or the relentless heat of summer and the relief of the monsoon, Kaye always chooses just the right words to bring the scene to life. The horrors and atrocities of the Mutiny are also described in vivid detail, although a relatively short portion of the novel is devoted to the actual rebellion and much more to the gradual building of tension, ending in the controversy over the new Enfield rifles which sparked the revolt (the British required the sepoys to use cartridges which were smeared with pork and beef fat, offensive to both Muslims and Hindus).

Lunjore, where much of the action is set, is a fictional district on the borders of Oudh (although it is portrayed so convincingly I had to check to see whether it was a real place or not) but the situation which unfolds there is similar to that being played out elsewhere in India. The British commanding officers are seemingly blind to what is going on around them, refusing to listen to stories of unrest amongst the Indian people and unwilling to doubt the loyalty of their armies. Alex Randall is one of the few exceptions – a man who thinks for himself and who tries to see things from the point of view of others. It’s so frustrating to watch his advice and warnings repeatedly falling on deaf ears as his superiors tell themselves he is worrying about nothing and stubbornly refuse to heed his words.

I found Alex an interesting, complex character, torn between his feelings for Winter and what he sees as his duties and responsibilities towards both the Company and the people of Lunjore. I was particularly intrigued by his relationship with Kishan Prasad – two men who are on ‘opposite sides’ but who each understand what the other is trying to do and under different circumstances might have been friends. With the bridging role he plays between the British and Indian perspectives, Alex often reminded me of Ashton Pelham-Martyn from The Far Pavilions. It took me a bit longer to warm to Winter – I was irritated by her infatuation with Conway and had to keep reminding myself that she was only seventeen!

Whether or not the romance captures your imagination, though, I think there should be something in this novel to interest most readers…the fascinating historical background, the colourful portrait of another time and place or maybe the adventure (plenty of daring escapes, disguises, ambushes and secret meetings by moonlight). I loved it and now I can’t wait to read M.M. Kaye’s other historical novel, Trade Wind, and the rest of the Death In series.

This is book 11/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

The Strangler Vine by MJ Carter

the-strangler-vine I love a good historical mystery and when this one was recommended to me recently (thank you, Pam!) I remembered that I already had a copy on my Kindle and couldn’t leave it to languish there any longer. Having read it, I wish I’d found time for it earlier – it’s an excellent book – but on the positive side, there are now two more in the series which I can read sooner rather than later.

The Strangler Vine is set in India in 1837, when large areas of the country were ruled by the British East India Company. Our narrator is William Avery, a young officer with the Company’s army. Originally from Devon, he has grown up reading the work of Xavier Mountstuart, a fictional author and poet whose writings sound similar to Rudyard Kipling’s and which have given him a romanticised view of India. Having spent nine months in Calcutta, however, he is starting to feel disillusioned with “the monstrous climate, the casual barbarities of the native population and the stiff unfriendliness of the European society”.

Disappointed that he still hasn’t been summoned to join his cavalry regiment in North Bengal, Avery is growing frustrated and bored – until the day he is asked to accompany an older officer, Jeremiah Blake, on a special mission. It seems that his literary hero, Mountstuart, has gone missing while carrying out research for a new poem and Avery and Blake have been given the task of finding him.

The Strangler Vine is a wonderful, fascinating novel; there are so many things I enjoyed about it that I’m not sure where to start! First of all, there’s the relationship between the two main characters, Avery and Blake, who, like all good mystery-solving duos, are two very different people who complement each other perfectly. Young, naïve and loyal to the Company, Avery is more instantly likeable and although he can be slow to pick up on clues, the fact that he never seems to know any more than the reader does makes him the perfect character to guide us through the novel. There’s a sense that where Indian culture, politics and history are concerned, Avery is learning as he goes along, which means background information tends to be given in large chunks rather than being lightly woven into the story. This style won’t appeal to every reader, but I found it all so interesting that it didn’t bother me.

Jeremiah Blake is a more unusual and intriguing character; although he still has connections to the East India Company, he no longer actively works for them – his knowledge of Indian languages and marriage to an Indian woman have aroused the distrust of the other officers who consider him to have ‘gone native’. His attitude towards Avery is abrupt, rude and dismissive and because we only see him through Avery’s eyes, he is a complete enigma at first. Eventually his true character starts to be revealed, but I was still left with the feeling that we have more to discover about Blake.

The mystery element of the novel is quite complex and what seems to Avery at first to be a straightforward search for a missing man soon develops into something with much deeper implications. It all revolves around the cult of Thuggee – organised gangs of thieves and murderers who worship the Goddess Kali and who are causing widespread fear and panic amongst the British in India. Mountstuart is thought to have been researching the Thugs at the time of his disappearance and so Avery and Blake, following his trail, also become drawn into the mystery and controversy surrounding the cult.

I loved The Strangler Vine; apart from the aspects of the novel I’ve already mentioned, I also really liked MJ Carter’s writing; it’s intelligent and detailed, she brings the setting vividly to life and, while I can hardly claim to be an expert on the India of the 1830s, if there were any inaccuracies or anachronisms I didn’t notice them. I can’t wait to join Avery and Blake for another adventure in The Printer’s Coffin.

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

Arctic Summer As someone who has only read one novel by E.M. Forster – A Room with a View – I wasn’t sure whether reading Arctic Summer would be a good idea. It’s a fictional biography of Forster, concentrating on the period during which he was working on his novel A Passage to India, so I thought it might be more sensible to wait until I had read that book first. Arctic Summer is on the list of books I need to read for my Walter Scott Prize Project, though, so when I saw it in the library I couldn’t resist picking it up and taking it home.

I should start by saying that as well as not having read much of Forster’s work, I also – before reading this novel – knew almost nothing about the man himself. The first thing I discovered was that Galgut refers to his main character not as Forster or Edward but as Morgan, which was his middle name. Forster went by this name to distinguish himself from his father, another Edward (and apparently he was originally supposed to be called Henry anyway – there was some confusion over names at the baptism).

We first meet Forster in 1912 as he sets sail on his first trip to India at the age of thirty-three. He is planning to visit his friend Syed Ross Masood, whom he had tutored in Latin several years earlier while Masood was a student in England. Forster is becoming increasingly aware that what he feels for Masood is not just friendship but also love. However, he is not entirely comfortable with his feelings yet and is plagued by doubts and frustrations; this was a time when homosexuality was neither legal nor seen as socially acceptable and we are reminded that fewer than twenty years have passed since Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment for ‘gross indecency’.

Later, during World War I, Forster travels to Egypt to work for the Red Cross, and here he falls in love again, this time with Mohammed el-Adl. His love for Masood and Mohammed forms the main focus of Arctic Summer – and this, to me, was slightly disappointing. Obviously his relationships with these two men (and others) were very important to Forster and had an influence on his writing, but I would have preferred to read a more balanced novel that also explored other aspects of his life, rather than just page after page describing his sexual experiences and desires.

I did enjoy reading about Egypt and India (the visit to the Barabar Caves was particularly memorable) and I was also pleased to see brief appearances from other writers of the period such as D.H. Lawrence and Virginia and Leonard Woolf. The writing was of a high quality too and Galgut tells Forster’s story with sensitivity and understanding. Too much of the book bored me, though, and it failed to move me as much as I would have liked and expected. I had difficulty relating the story of Morgan’s love affairs to what little I know of Forster’s writing and I think I should definitely have waited to read this until I’d at least read A Passage to India and possibly Maurice as well.

This was one of the few disappointments I’ve had during my reading from the Walter Scott Prize shortlists, but don’t let me put you off. Looking at other reviews it seems that a lot of people have read it and loved it. As I’ve mentioned, my own lack of familiarity with Forster’s life and work could have been part of my problem. If nothing else, reading Arctic Summer has made me want to read more of E.M. Forster’s novels sooner rather than later.

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!