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RIVER OF SMOKE by Amitav Ghosh


by Amitav Ghosh

Pub Date: Oct. 5th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-374-17423-1
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Ghosh sets the second volume of his Ibis trilogy in 1838, appropriately enough, because at heart he’s a 19th-century novelist with a sweeping vision of character and culture.

At the center of the novel is Bahram Modi, whose humble origins in India belie his current status as a shipper of opium. But Ghosh threads multiple plots through his narrative, most of them having to do with the consequences of a severe storm in the Indian Ocean. Not only does this storm disrupt Bahram’s shipment of opium on the Anahita, it also threatens the Ibis, a ship whose “cargo” includes indentured servants, criminals, a French orphan (who later helps horticulturist Fitcher Penrose identify exotic plants in China) and a pair of lovers, Deeti and Kalua. When we’re not at sea trying to survive this monstrous storm, Ghosh takes us to Canton, China, the center of commerce, intrigue and corruption. Every character is on a quest for something: a valuable plant, a romance or a fortune. As with Dickens, Ghosh gives us an anatomy of the social world from the highest levels to the lowest, from the emperor of China to the river rats haunting the harbor of Canton, and his amazing ear finds a language—from pidgin English to Cornish dialect—appropriate for each character. Along the way we meet businessmen such as Bahram, whose judgment is perhaps clouded by a surfeit of opium.

Ghosh triumphs both through the clarity of his style and the sweep of his vision, and he leaves the reader eager for volume three.