River of Smoke – Book Review

Opium is like the wind or the tides: it is outside my power to affect its course. A man is neither good nor evil because he sails his ship upon the wind. It is his conduct towards those around him – his friends, his family, his servants – by which he must be judged. – from River of Smoke, page 166 –

A cyclone in the Bay of Bengal threatens the Ibis and its crew and passengers, and tosses crates of opium about the hold of the Anahita. Another ship, the Redruth, carries Fitcher Penrose, a horticulturist, and his plants – beautiful specimens which Penrose hopes to trade for plants in China. As these ships converge on the south coast of China, their passengers will connect in surprising and unusual ways. Hovering above it all is the smoke of opium and the smell of money, two things which will elevate tensions and ignite the beginning of the Opium Wars.

Amitav Ghosh’s second novel in the Ibis Trilogy begins with a familiar character, Deeti, who is making her home on Mauritius. Years have passed since her fateful trip on the Ibis and she is imparting her stories to a new generation. So it is Deeti’s voice which reverberates through River of Smoke as the reader uncovers the destiny of the characters from Sea of Poppies.

Ghosh re-introduces many characters from the first book including Deeti, Neel, Paulette, and Ah Fatt. But he also brings to life several new characters both fictional and historical. Bahram, a Bengal opium trader, takes center stage as his ship, the Anahita, is threatened by the cyclone. Despite losing a huge amount of his precious opium in the storm, Bahram still retains enough of his merchandise to make him a rich man…except that the Emperor of China has decided it is time to stop the influx of opium into his country. As Bahram and the other wealthy traders arrive in Canton, their ships remain anchored in the waters surrounding the south coast of China with their bilges full of opium and no way to sell it. Bahram is a strangely sympathetic character despite his immoral choice of career.

It was evident too that Ah Fatt had been right to describe Bahram as a man who was widely liked, even loved. From his employees he commanded an almost fanatical loyalty not only because he was a generous paymaster and fair in his dealings, but also because there was something in his manner that conveyed to them that he did not consider himself to be above, or better, than anyone on his staff. It was as if they knew that despite his wealth and his love of luxury, the Seth remained at heart a village boy, reared in poverty: his irritability was regarded as more endearing than offensive, and his occasional outbursts and dumbcowings were treated like vagaries of the weather and were never taken personally. – from River of Smoke, page 211 –

Bahram represents the Indian people and the shame associated with the production of opium. The largest grower of opium, India’s society and people were also devastated by the drug during the nineteenth century. Many citizens of India turned to the production and trade of opium under British colonial rule as a way to survive in their poor economy. In River of Smoke, Bahram struggles with this moral dilemma.

It was because you knew that almost all the ‘black mud’ that came to Canton was shipped from your own shores; and you knew also that even though your share of the riches that grew upon that mud was minuscule, that did not prevent the stench of it from clinging more closely to you than to any other kind of Alien. – from River of Smoke, page 182 –

Ghosh deftly controls the narrative, weaving individual stories through the larger drama of the historical events. By the 1830s, China’s economy and society were being destroyed by the opium trade and a decision was made to halt the trade at whatever cost. Lin Zexu, a Chinese scholar and official, was dispatched to Canton to stop the trafficking of the drug in 1839. His decision to hold British traders hostage until they agreed to turn over their opium to the Chinese government, was the first spark in the Opium Wars. Money and greed, along with a disrespect of China’s laws made foreigners belligerent and resistant to giving up their trade in opium. British warships descended on China in an effort to continue smuggling the drug into the country. Ghosh’s novel is set during this turbulent time and examines the immorality and devastation of the opium trade through the eyes of the traders, the politicians, and the common man.

There is also a parallel story within the novel – that of Paulette, a Frenchwoman who has escaped the Ibis, and Fitcher Penrose, an English horticulturist. Paulette and Fitcher’s tale brings a different perspective to the novel. It is this narrative which shows the reader the beauty of the Chinese landscape with its brilliant flora. Their trade is in the delicate petals of flowers, and the allure of fragrant plants. Paulette’s flamboyant and hilarious friend, Robin, is an artist and their informant in Canton as they seek an elusive flower of unusual elegance.

Amitav Ghosh has written a sweeping historical saga which builds upon the previous book in the trilogy. Despite its huge cast of characters, the novel is quite accessible. Once again, Ghosh intersperses pigeon English, slang and unusual language throughout the story – a technique that at times is a bit confusing and may appear off-putting to some readers, although it did not bother me. My only complaint with the book was that the pace was sometimes slow. In comparing this novel with Sea of Poppies, I slightly preferred the first book of the trilogy.

That said, River of Smoke is a brilliant work of fiction and one which I thoroughly enjoyed. Readers who love historical fiction and are interested in the late nineteenth century in China will find themselves immersed in a culture and time in history which is endlessly fascinating.

Highly recommended.

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Readers who love this series may be interested to know that there are plans for a major motion picture.

FTC Disclosure: I purchased this book.

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    • Teresa on January 1, 2012 at 12:00

    That’s wonderful news that there might be a movie of these books. I’d definitely want to see that.

  1. Your review makes me want to go out and start this trilogy. To bad that all the books aren’t available yet. I am still going to add them to my TBR pile.

    • Wendy on January 1, 2012 at 15:02

    Teresa: *nod* I was glad to see this would be a movie. I wonder how long we’ll have to wait for the final book in the trilogy?!?!?

    Monique: LOL – Well, it is definitely worth reading!

  2. I have Sea of Poppies and this one on my shelf to read. I really need to get to it this year!

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