River of Smoke
Sea of Poppies, for me, was Ghosh’s best work to date.I adored “The Glass Palace”, a Dickensian traipse through Burma towards the end of its monarchial days, and the beginnings of colonial conflict, and through to a new era of repression and socialism.
The first Ghosh I ever read was “The Hungry Tide”, the premise of which was fascinating… but the clunky chunky execution of it left me cold. What could have been a masterful weaving of folktales, a story of two cultures, and a depiction of the wild and untamed Sundarban mangroves and islands became a mess of Wikipedia-like encyclopedia extracts and cardboard shallow relationships.
And let’s not forget the death of a certain delightful character, who was pretty much the sacrificial lamb for Ghosh’s somewhat poignant, but ultimately, flat ending.
After reading Sea of Poppies, I thought, “finally! Ghosh has mastered the art of seamless research + historical fiction writing” (a tag which, in recent years has lost its stigma of bodice-ripping low-brow sensationalism – particularly after Hilary Mantel snagged the Booker with WOLF HALL, which I have yet to read).
Alas, it seems the ever-curious Ghosh’s insatiable appetite for knowledge and rich historical detail has led to another tangle of seemingly irrelevant subplots and a cast of characters completely removed from the ever so endearing ones from the first instalment of the trilogy.
To be fair, Ghosh has the whole picture in his mind, and I as a reader, am only privy to the glimpses he is allowing us, one morsel at a time (though actually both novels are quite chunky. I do like that word these days). But wouldn’t it be so nice if, for once, every instalment of the a trilogy was equally strong on its own, without the need of the other two novels to enrich it and make it a better work of literature?
Though River of Smoke may turn out to be a perfect middle-section for Sea of Poppies and its third and final instalment, due for publication in 2014, on its own it is quite weak. That’s not to say that the research was poor, or that it lacked verisimilitude (except perhaps in an outlandish scene where two of the Parsi merchants arrange a meeting with Napoleon – yes, the Bonaparte – oh, and the search for the mythical golden flower, which just seemed a tad too fanciful… and forced, upon otherwise quite rational and respectable characters). It’s just the clunkiness of it I couldn’t stand. How Ghosh left some crucial moments really undeveloped, but then went on and on and on with sections that seemed contrived, which seemed to simply be there so that he could include another fascinating discovery made during his evidently extensive research into the entire universe.
I didn’t find the digressions themselves entirely tiresome. After all, Victor Hugo does a similar thing in Les Miserables, and so does Tolstoy in War and Peace, for that matter – and both books wouldn’t be the same without those parts. It was more the way he dealt with those subplots, e.g. the completely anti-climatic matter of the golden camellia, which turns out to be a fraud. Anyone else see some similarities to the lame and anti-climatic “and in the end I woke up and it was all a dream!” resolution?
Like I keep saying, I’ll have to read the third novel to make any final judgements… but I suppose, in the end, this book was just mediocre. I read it more out of loyalty to Ghosh (yes, I do tend to do that) than because I was captivated by it.