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.


6 thoughts on “River of Smoke

  1. Hii!!! I was so ready to sleep, eyes half-closed, when I saw your comment. Had to drop by and say hello. This makes me really happy. I have not much time to blog but decided to keep it as, like you, no matter how I move and try to leave, just keep coming back. Won’t let go. As usual, you said what I had always wanted to say about The Hungry Tide. And Sea of Poppies. I’ll probably feel the same about this second installment of the trilogy as you, but, like you as well, too loyal to not read it nevertheless. Don’t leave again!! See you around. Lovely to hear your thoughts. Forgive my rambling right now, just too tired to think, but so happy that your blog is alive again.

    1. So good to hear from you Claire!!!! :)
      Yeah I think I’m going to keep this open for good.
      The sad thing is, I’m blogging less… but also reading less as well.
      I can’t seem to concentrate for as long.
      Nor do I have the time to just sit down and read…
      I’m getting through 1Q84 at the moment, I’d love to know what you think of it!
      For me, Murakami has lost his magic as well.
      Or is it just this particular book?
      Maybe I’m just in a slump at the moment!

      1. Here from kiss a cloud’s lovely blog to yours, just peeping in and leaving a comment that I think Murakami lost his magic in 1Q84 as well. It certainly didn’t hold up to my two favorites of his (Kafka on The Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). Still, I’ll probably read everything he writes because he’s a favorite author of mine.

        1. Hi Bellezza :)

          Kafka on the Shore is my absolute favourite of his as well! It has that dream-like absurdity that I love.

          1Q84 has none of that… doesn’t feel like a whole load of exposition and back-story at times? Not great writing, on the whole. Just a whole lot of ice-picks, creepy girls and Little People… and ‘nice boobs’/middle-aged balding men with nice head shapes.

          1. I haven’t read 1Q84 yet, and now you’re both convincing me not to ever. I’ve only ever read Kafka and Windup Bird, and loved both, but don’t know how I’ll feel about the other ones. Will surely read Norwegian Wood, which has been sitting on my shelf, and might try the running book.

            I really don’t blog and read as much as I want to as well, but the thought of permanently closing the blog feels depressing now, so will just keep it there and continue as time and chance allows. Plus WordPress keeps coming out with new templates of late. :)

            1. Yeah I noticed they’re trying really hard with the templates, but I still seem to have difficulty finding one I like! At least they’ve gotten a bit more lax about the whole customization thing :)

              Haha ordinarily I’d say, ‘no Claire! I can’t believe I’ve done such a horrible thing – you must give it a try regardless’ but with 1Q84………. I honestly don’t know. I got the hardcover edition as well because I like the vellum cover thing so much but now I’m thinking I could have bought four decent paperbacks with that money!

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