A historical novel crammed almost to the bursting point with incidents and characters, but Ghosh (The Hungry Tide, 2005, etc.) deftly keeps everything under control.
It’s 1838, and Britain is set on maintaining the opium trade between India and China as a buttress of its economic, political and cultural power. Ghosh orchestrates his polyphonic saga with a composer’s fine touch. He lays out multiple narrative lines, initially separate, that eventually conjoin on the Ibis, a schooner bound from Calcutta to China across the much-feared “Black Water.” Neel, the sophisticated raja of Raskhali, is convicted of a trumped-up forgery charge. Kalua, a prodigiously strong member of the lower caste, rescues the higher-caste Deeti from ritual burning on the death of her egregious husband. Paulette, a feisty French orphan, stows away on the Ibis to escape the restricted life of a white woman in India. It also might have something to do with the attractions of Zachary Reid, the ship’s mixed-race second mate from Baltimore. He’s commanded by brutal first mate Jack Crowle, who has no sympathy for anyone of any color, and by Captain Chillingworth, who warns passengers and crew, “at sea there is another law, and…on this vessel I am its sole maker.” Ghosh could be accused of using coincidence a bit too freely, but a more charitable view will judge the inevitability of these characters’ intertwinings as karma—and part of the pleasure of reading the novel. The density of settings, from rural India to teeming Calcutta to the Sudder Opium Factory, is historically convincing, and the author pays close attention to variations in speech, from the clipped formality of the educated class to a patois (“the kubber is that his cuzzanah is running out”) that definitely requires the glossary that Ghosh provides.
Planned as the first of a trilogy, this astonishing, mesmerizing launch will be hard to top.