Sea of Poppies – Book Review

seaofpoppies It was Kabutri’s question that triggered Deeti’s vision: her eyes suddenly conjured up a picture of an immense ship with two tall masts. Suspended from the masts were great sails of a dazzling shade of white. The prow of the ship tapered into a figurehead with a long bill, like a stork or a heron. There was a man in the background, standing near the bow, and although she could not see him clearly, she had a sense of a distinctive and unfamiliar presence. – from Sea of Poppies, page 7 –

Deeti, an Indian woman who grows poppies, has a vision of a ship – an odd vision because she lives 400 miles from the sea and has never seen a boat such as this…but her vision is a premonition and the ship has a name: Ibis. Thus begins Amitav Ghosh’s sprawling, historical saga Sea of Poppies. What follows is a story with a vast cast of characters whose paths ultimately cross enroute to the island of Mauritius aboard the Ibis – a former slave ship manned by a motley crew including an opium addicted captain, a freed American slave, and a foul-mouthed first mate with a penchant for cruelty. The voyagers include Paulette (a French woman with a sense of adventure who is fleeing an unacceptable situation in India), and Neel (a man who has been convicted of a crime he did not commit). But it is the Indian indentured workers who take center stage in a novel about caste, freedom, and human connection. And it is Deeti who becomes the central figure – a strong woman who marries beneath her caste and is respected by the other women aboard the ship.

The novel is beautifully imagined and captures the hopelessness of the opium factory workers, the daily lives of the villagers, the violence of ship law, and the diversity of an India in the mid-nineteenth century. Ghosh’s use of language in the novel is brilliant. Filled with strange words, pidgin English, and unusual sentence structure – the book at first seems unwieldy. But Ghosh succeeds where other less talented authors might not. The language, used with appropriate context, becomes almost like a musical score in a movie. Ghosh’s use of language demonstrates the way language can unite or divide people, and confuse or clarify situations. It is a powerful technique that works.

Historically, Sea of Poppies is set just prior to the Opium Wars and revolves around the British involvement in India and their trade practices exporting opium from India to China. Ghosh reveals the damage done by British colonial rule and the devastation wreaked upon the Indian economy, as well as society at large. Although apparently Ghosh’s creative inspiration was the indentured people of India, he says in an interview: “[…] once I started researching into it, it was kind of inescapable – all the roads led back to opium. The indentured emigration [out of India] really started in the 1830s and that was [around the time of] the peak of the opium traffic. That decade culminated in the opium wars against China.”

Ghosh is skilled at creating character…and in Sea of Poppies the characters are memorable and complex.

This was a personage of formidable appearance, with a face that would have earned the envy of Genghis Khan, being thin, long and narrow, with darting black eyes that sat restlessly upon rakishly angled cheekbones. Two feathery strands of moustache drooped down to his chin, framing a mouth that was constantly in motion, its edges stained a bright, livid red: it was as if he were forever smacking his lips after drinking from the opened veins of a mare, like some bloodthirsty Tartar of the steppes. The discovery that the substance in his mouth was of vegetable origin came as no great reassurance to Zachary: once, when the serang spat a stream of blood-red juice over the rail, he noticed the water below coming alive with the thrashing of shark’s fins. How harmless could this betel-stuff be if it could be mistaken for blood by a shark? – from Sea of Poppies, page 13 –

Although filled with adventure and interesting plot twists, Sea of Poppies is also about what makes us human in the face of crisis. One particularly memorable part of the novel to me was when Neel loses his caste and is convicted of the crime of forgery. Thrown into jail, he is forced to share a cell with an Asian named Ah Fatt who is hopelessly addicted to opium and lies in his own waste. For Neel, a man of stature who is fastidously clean, the situation is almost unbearable. And then he makes a self-discovery about what it means to care for another human being:

To take care of another human being – this was something Neel had never before thought of doing, not even with his own son, let alone a man of his own age, a foreigner. All he knew of nurture was the tenderness that had been lavished on him by his own care-givers: that they would come to love him was something he had taken for granted – yet knowing his own feelings for them to be in no way equivalent, he had often wondered how that attachment was born. It occurred to him now to ask himself if this was how it happened: was it possible that the mere fact of using one’s hands and investing one’s attention in someone other than oneself, created a pride and tenderness that had nothing whatever to do with the response of the object of one’s care – just as a craftsman’s love for his handiwork is in no way diminished by the fact of it being unreciprocated? – from Sea of Poppies, page 300 –

It was moments like these in the story which elevated it above the typical historical novel.

Some readers have found the ending of Sea of Poppies to be abrupt and unresolved. I would agree. However, this book is the first in a planned trilogy which may explain the ending. At any rate, Sea of Poppies completely enthralled me and I am looking forward to the next two books.

Readers who love world and historical literature, and who enjoy richly textured sagas will love Sea of Poppies.

Highly recommended.


Read more about the book and planned trilogy.

Read more about Amitav Ghosh and his work at the author’s website.

Read an interview with the author.

Read other blog reviews:

Farm Lane Books

7th Decade Thoughts

Page 247

Bookclub Classics

What Am I Reading

The Reading Life

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    • Kathy on July 13, 2009 at 08:22

    Oh my gosh! I really want to read that book! Great review.

  1. I think this might be the first book we disagree on!

    I loved the beginning in the Indian poppy fields, but lost interest when they got on board the ship. Those arrogant white men really annoyed me and the ship jargon was just too much.

    It is very strange that this book divided us as we normally agree exactly.

    • Wendy on July 13, 2009 at 09:22

    Thanks, Kathy!

    Jackie: I know! We usually agree 100%…but I can see how some readers could get waylaid with the language in the novel. For me, it worked. But I love, love, love big sagas like this with lots of characters…and actually the second half of the book was stronger for me than the first half! So we completely disagreed! Ah well, it happens 🙂

    • Anna on July 13, 2009 at 15:20

    Your review has made me really want to read this one.

  2. Nice review!! I’ve always loved Amitav Ghosh’s should read ‘Hungry Tide’ if you havent done yet. That’s one of my favorites…I absolutely love the way he sketches his characters, they are so memorable!

    • 3m on July 14, 2009 at 13:07

    Wow — might have to look into this one!

    • Wendy on July 18, 2009 at 08:41

    Anna: I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts on it!

    Pratima: I have added Hungry Tide to my wish list after reading this book…he is a wonderful story teller, isn’t he?

    Michelle: I think you’d like this one!

    • Teddy on July 19, 2009 at 21:53

    i have read a lot of mixed reviews for this book. It is on my TBR and I do want to read it and see for myself.

    • Wendy on July 20, 2009 at 07:33

    Teddy: You’re right – lots of mixed reviews. People seem to either love it or hate it…a real polarizing read. The biggest complaint about the book seems to be the use of the language…which for me was one of its strengths. I’ll be interested to see what you think of it.

    • 3m on October 7, 2009 at 04:59

    I’m now finishing up A Hungry Tide by Ghosh and LOVE his writing style. I will definitely be reading this and hopefully the rest of the trilogy.

    • Wendy on October 7, 2009 at 06:29

    Michelle, All things Ghosh are now on my wishlist! I hope you love this book like I did…I can’t believe I somehow missed this author until now!

    • Mel u on January 12, 2010 at 00:13

    I just finished this book about 30 minutes ago-it is a very dense rich work with a lot in it-at first I was I admit annoyed by all the terminology from 19th century India then I came to really enjoy learning all these new terms-I have a feeling in part II we will be treated to some very surprising revelations-thanks for the very good review-I will post my review in a day or so

    • Wendy on January 12, 2010 at 09:44

    Mel: So glad you found this work as wonderful as I did (this book made my top ten for 2009)…and like you, I am really interested to see what he will do in the second book (do you know anything about when that might be released!??!). Would love to read your complete review.

    • Mel u on January 12, 2010 at 16:57

    I just posted my review on this book-I cross linked it to your review-

    • Wendy on January 27, 2010 at 11:18

    Mel u: Thanks for the link love! I’ve added a link to your review to this post.

    • mimosas on March 10, 2011 at 02:28

    Can anyone tell me if there exists any published information to translate the indian vocabulary used in Sea of Poppies ? Loved the book and cannot wait for the second part.

    • Wendy on April 3, 2011 at 06:38

    Mimosas: I haven’t found any translations… I think some of the language in the book was invented by the author. Glad you also loved the book!

    • Erin on September 30, 2011 at 19:20

    I love the comparison of the language to a musical score. I struggled with it, especially at first, but Ghosh’s word choices definitely gave the book a certain atmosphere. The quote of his you included interests me as well. I had meant to look up some of the history of opium…but I got carried away with the rest of what I had to say in my post and completely forgot!

    I wonder how I would have felt about the ending had River of Smoke not even been a titled, soon-to-be-published work when I finished Sea of Poppies. I’m not sure I’d have liked the ending as much as I did if I didn’t know I could pick the story back up 🙂

    Thanks for adding your review to the Reading Buddies post! I love seeing what others have said about the books we read, even if we’ve read them at different times.

    • Wendy on October 25, 2011 at 08:46

    Erin: Sorry for my late response to your comment – I have enjoyed reading the reviews from your Reading Buddies on this book – and I love that most people have enjoyed the book 🙂

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