Outsiders are drawn into the exotic vortex of a remote Pacific archipelago.
In a complex narrative filled with echoes of Naipaul and especially Conrad (with an occasional nod to Peter Matthiessen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord), Anglo-Indian author Ghosh (The Glass Palace, 2001, etc.) interweaves the fates of several natives and visitors to the pristine (if not primitive) Sundarban Islands in the Bay of Bengal. Marine biologist Piya(la) Roy, raised in the United States by Indian parents, has come to the islands to study a rare and endangered marine species, the Irrawaddy dolphin. New Delhi businessman Kanai Dutt (creator of a thriving translation business) is visiting his aunt Nilima, and perusing the history (of the islands’ exploitation by “people who made a push to protect the wildlife here, without regard to the human costs,” and a failed utopian “revolution” waged by settlers and their sympathizers) contained in the journal of Kanai’s uncle Nirmal, a probable victim of political murder. Matters are further complicated when Kanai serves as translator on Piya’s research expedition, in a fishing boat piloted by taciturn islander Fokir, the adult son of an embattled woman (Kusum) who may have been Nirmal’s lover, and appears to have shared his fate. Ghosh tells their stories in parallel narratives suffused with an impressive wealth of historical, cetological and ethnographic detail (which isn’t always successfully dramatized). The result is a fascinating tapestry, in which idealistic motives and carefully preserved secrets alike are vulnerable to a world of various predators—a truth expressed in the beguiling legend of the islands’ “protectress” in combat with a malevolent “tiger-demon,” and during a climactic tropical storm followed by a fateful “tidal surge.”
A bit bumpy; still, overall, Ghosh’s fifth is one of his most interesting.