River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

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River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Louise Laurie
Reviewed by Louise Laurie
Summary: A sweeping, historical narrative taking in Mauritius, parts of China as well as other exotic places. Centred on the opium trade, we see how it affects both individuals in this novel and also the wider community.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 528 Date: June 2011
Publisher: John Murray
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0719568985

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At over 500 pages, this is a big book and it's also a big book in terms of the subject matters that it covers; the whole colonial situation regarding parts of the East as well as the properties and problems of the poppy's product - opium. Ghosh also crams in a wealth of very different and diverse characters so that the novel has the feel of an exotic and at times, enchanting pot-pourri of a read. I have to say at the outset that I find authors such as Rushdie wordy, very wordy. I have Ghosh's The Glass Palace in my ever-growing 'to read' pile. I wonder if the latter will be as wordy as the former. Time to find out...

The first section Islands concentrates on the island of Mauritius and of a family's rather arduous journey to visit a shrine - Deeti's shrine. Deeti is getting on in years now but to understand where she is today, we have to delve back in time, right back to her childhood. She lived a very poor life near the great Ganges river in a modest mud hut. Ghosh fills us in with the minutest of details here; nothing is left out. And as early as page 9 we touch on colonial history as we learn that Deeti worked for a Frenchman. He was her master and it was he who was responsible for transporting the young Deeti and others from their homeland, to Mauritius. He described it as an adventure. I suspect that Deeti would see the whole 'adventure' quite differently. Without going into too much detail (I'll leave that to Ghosh) and spoiling the story, basically a storm erupted and Deeti survived to tell the tale. Again and again and ... She marries, has children and the story is perpetuated.

That very bad storm of 1838 had at least one other significant casualty that we know about - a ship transporting opium. Hundreds of chests full of the stuff were ruined apparently. Imagine the cost. And to whom? Enter another of the central characters: Bahram, a resourceful man who is heavily involved in the opium trade between India and China. And once again, Ghosh gives us detailed accounts of the perils of the sea at that time, the perils also of the commodity etc.

We find out lots more about Bahram. About his life, his loves, his children and here Ghosh introduces some pidgin English as spoken by the locals. This is welcome, on my part, as it breaks up the rather dense narrative and gives the reader a little light relief, if you like. A little light and shade is always good. Bahram is an interesting and complex character. He lives one kind of life back home with his family in India (the dutiful and devoted husband) but when absent for these long spells, well, he becomes someone else -literally. He has another life with another woman and other offspring. He even uses a western name.

You could easily describe this novel as a great, big historical adventure. It's packed full with characters who do weird and wonderful (and not so wonderful) things all over the place but for me. I felt it had too much dense text on the page. Page after page. So, in this respect I did find similarities with Rushie, for example. While I appreciate that this is Ghosh's own personal style, if failed to charm me completely. Yes, there are some terrific lines and sentiments expressed which made me stop and think for a moment, particularly concerning colonialism generally, but then there's an awful lot of meandering sentences. Too flowery for my personal taste but I can see this novel being a hit with fans of intricate, historical novels.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then try The Unicorn Road by Martin Davies.

Buy River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh at Amazon.co.uk

Buy River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh at Amazon.com.


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