Saturday, November 07, 2009

Cannonball Read, Book 1: Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

At its core, this book is about how a number of people find themselves on a boat leaving from India to bring coolies to work on plantations in the Mauritius islands, in 1838. The characters range from the owner of the ship to the ship's second mate to the coolies to the prisoners. The first half of the book concentrates on introducing us to the main characters and their initial circumstances, while the second half of the book takes place on the ship and begins to show us how they will interact together. The end of the book is a bit abrupt, a cliffhanger until the next book in the trilogy comes out.

Reviewing this book is a bit difficult, as all of the book's flaws are also strengths. For example, the main characters are interesting and come from diverse backgrounds. Reading about them you get an idea of what the various layers of Indian society must have been like at the time -- from the English plantation owner, to the comparatively wealthy Indian accountant working for the owner, to the poor poppy farmer living hand to mouth. However, while all of the characters are interesting and well-differentiated, there are a LOT of them. There are roughly a dozen main characters and something like twenty more secondary characters. I had to restart this book twice because I kept on getting confused between the various characters. Part of this is due to the fact that as an American I had difficulty remembering the various Indian names -- it's easier for me to keep Mary, Jack, Peter, and Eliza straight than Deeti, Kalua, Jodu, and Serang!*. I at least know right away that Mary and Eliza are women. Obviously, this isn't the book's fault -- it's just something that initially makes it more difficult to get into the book. Having to stop every two pages to figure out who the hell the character is can be a bit irritating. Once you get past this difficulty, though, the characters are all very interesting, and the fact that there are so many of them means that you get the enjoyment of watching them all interact in various ways.

The other good/bad aspect to this book is the combination of dialects that the book uses. I.E.:

"Launder say father-blongi-she go hebbin. That bugger do too muchi tree-pijjin. Allo time picking plant. Inside pocket hab no cash. After he go hebbin cow-chilo catchi number-two-father, Mr. Burnham."

"What'd you say we leave the steering to that badmash and find ourselves a drop of loll-shrub?"

After about the first hundred pages you kind of get used to not understanding half the things the characters say, and some of the other dialects are much easier to understand and provide some humor. I also discovered on Amazon that some editions of the book included a glossary at the back. Mine didn't, though.

One aspect that is entirely positive is the way Ghosh succeeds in teaching the reader about Indian society in the mid 1800s without ever seeming didactic. I feel like I know much more about poppy cultivation, opium manufacturing, Indian castes and Great Britain's economic and military policy but during reading I never got that at school feeling.

If you like wordplay and are willing to put in the initial work to keep roughly 30 characters with unfamiliar names straight, this is a rewarding and compelling book. If not, it's just frustrating and irritating. Now that I have met all the characters, I will definitely read the next book when it comes out.

*for the record, Deeti is an extremely poor female poppy farmer from a small Indian village, Kalua is a male ox driver from the same village, Jodu is a young boat operator from Calcutta, and Serang is a male sailor of unknown origins.

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