Two distinct types predominate among the winners of the Man Booker Prize, awarded annually to the best novel published in the British Commonwealth or Ireland. The first is elegiac, understated, quintessentially English in its honey-drip pacing and minute revelations, the province of authors such as Ian McEwan, Alan Hollinghurst, and John Banville. The second is the postcolonial romp, a mash-up of wild conceits, low comedy, and sharp social criticism, as exemplified by Salman Rushdie, VS. Naipaul, and DBC Pierre. If the first group is the literary equivalent of Belle and Sebastian, the second is M.I.A., and Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, a Booker finalist last year, shares the Sri Lankan artist’s brash, earthy joie de vivre.
Set in Victorian India on the eve of the Opium Wars, the novel slowly pulls together its numerous characters onto the slave ship Ibis, a cast as wide-ranging in color as it is in caste. Center-stage are a young freedman from Baltimore who through a concatenation of circumstances is made second mate, a socially progressive French orphan, a rajah fallen from riches to rags, and a quietly heroic Hindu widow.
Like the great Victorian novels which are its forebears, Sea of Poppies is a well-paced pleasure, a highbrow page-turner. Moreover, it is a work of moral fiction, and although miles and decades separate us from the world of the novel, the book’s central issues are fiercely contemporary: drug addiction, multiculturalism, the gravitational pull of tradition, widow burning, the corrosive effect of the West’s greed and ideology upon Asia.
At the same time, Ghosh never moralizes, never oversimplifies. With the care of someone who assembles ships in bottles, he recreates nineteenth century India: the mansions, alleys, and quays of Calcutta, the fields of poppies growing along the Ganges, the salty patois of urchins and the lapidary dialogue of the aristocrats. Although most of the book is arranged cinematically, with numerous quick cuts between the parallel narratives, Ghosh shows off his craft in a few outstanding set pieces, including a tour through an opium factory and a descent into the grimiest cell of a Calcutta prison. Some of the most gripping language he saves for the final third of the novel, after all the characters have, through various choices and twists of fate, found themselves aboard the Ibis en route to the island of Mauritius. But this is only the beginning: Sea of Poppies is the first book of a projected trilogy, and it concludes with a cliffhanging shakeup merely a quarter of the way into the journey.
In service to verisimilitude, Ghosh refuses to substitute English approximations for Hindi or Bengali terms, and some readers might find his longer sections of dialogue exhausting. Even after multiple reads, some of the novel’s conversations are frustratingly opaque, and the untranslated terms are nearly impossible to track, although, to his credit, Ghosh appends the book with an extensive glossary.
If the book’s language is sometimes bafflingly complex, a few of its characters suffer from the opposite problem – being too uncomplicated, too unchanging. This is especially true of the plucky heroes Zachary and Paulette, the freedman and French orphan, whose post-racial, post-sexist attitudes are improbable as they are noble. By the end of the novel, the truest heroine and most believable character is Deeti, whose developing social consciousness Ghosh builds masterfully.
While some of the novel’s characters are tinged with anachronism, it’s a refreshing contrast to the scores of contemporary novels whose moral characters so often are revealed to be hypocrites, and as such, the goodness of Ghosh’s courageous protagonists should be considered more charming than simplistic. Because, sometimes, it’s all right to be charmed.