Customer Reviews: River of Smoke: A Novel (The Ibis Trilogy)
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on September 27, 2011
One of the benefits of a summer trip to London is to discover that a much anticipated new book is available there before its United States publication date. So much to my surprise I was able to purchase Amitar Ghosh's new book, the second of his Ibis trilogy, RIVER OF SMOKE. The first book being the outstanding SEA OF POPPIES which I read in 2009. Ghosh continues to amaze with his newest volume as both an excellent writer and story teller. I can not wait for the concluding volume in a few years.

The trilogy is told against the backdrop of the Opium wars of the early 1800s. The first book took many characters to tell the story of how the Opium was produced by the East India Company in India. These characters all found their way to becoming passengers on the ship "Ibis" and the book ends with a great storm and its various character plot lines are cast off without clean endings. So I for one expected that the second book would continue with this same group of characters and there individual stories. Hoping I guess that they all would continue to star in Ghosh's epic production. This was not to be as Ghosh opens SMOKE with what I found to be an extremely muddled opening chapter or two. But then things get going and we also discover that Ghosh has something larger in mind. The story he intends to tell is that of the Opium trade itself. His characters and thier stories provide an entertaining window on a world dominated by Opium and its impact on lives and history. The research in this book is astounding. You can feel, see, and smell every part of Canton, China where the setting has now moved from India. This is not a story told in hindsight... it is told in real time with what one recognizes must be real peoples reactions to real time events . The book reaches an incredibly high benchmark for historical fiction writing.

As book two begins we are introduced to two other ships who are riding out the storm (with the Ibis?). One has as a passenger, Paulette who is brought forward from the first book and wants to re-discover a rare flower China is rumored to have that is said to cure almost anything. The other ship has the book's new main character Bahram Modi, an Indian, the father of Ah Fatt who is also one of the carry over characters from POPPIES. Bahram invests everything in one big gamble... taking a huge shipment of Opium from India to China. We are introduced to him and his cargo as they sail though a huge storm as he fights against the real possibility of his losing his cargo and investment. When he arrives in Canton,China he finds that the Emperor of China has decide to now close Chinese ports to the Opium trade. A trade that has all along been illegal in China. The British profited greatly by trading opium in exchange for Tea and other Chinese goods. This they did in the name of "free trade" and the rule of "markets" with no concern what Opium's impact on China was. It does not take much for the reader to recognize that Ghosh has found an historical parallel for today's globalization. He focuses on the clash of culture, empire, ambition, profiteering, art, language and love.

I liked these lines found near the end of the book, "Am I wrong to think that it was you who said that the involvement of a government representative would be a perversion of the laws of free trade? This is no longer a matter of now concerns our persons, our safety. Oh I see!....The government is to you what God is to agnostics - only to be invoked when your own well-being is at stake!" And another line that demonstrates the larger ambition of the narrative, "And what was it all for...... Was it just for this: so that these fellows could speak English, and wear hats and trousers, and play cricket?"
To paraphrase Ghosh, if he had not written such a splendid novel about Canton no one would believe that such a place had ever existed. This is the second part of an amazingly entertaining read. Don't miss out.
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on September 27, 2011
The River of Smoke is the second installment of Amitav Ghosh's entertaining and informative Ibis trilogy. Is reading the first volume required? Technically, no.

But, the stories are linked in a clumsy fashion, and at least one of the main characters in River of Smoke cannot be fully appreciated in TRS without having read the first volume Sea of Poppies. And, Gosh is painting a broad canvas that includes the British poppy industry and its corrupting affect on Indian society. So, it helps to more fully appreciate Gosh's story to read both volumes.

The Sea of Poppies largely describes the Indian poppy growing and manufacturing industry in 1838. The passage describing an opium factory itself makes the book a worthwhile read. The River of Smoke (TRoS) places its characters in the historical events of 1838-39, when the Chinese succeeded briefly in expelling English opium traders from the international center of Canton.

Ghosh's narrative captures in detail the emergence of Chinese resistance to the growing opium trade. There is tremendously relevant back and forth between the traders and the Chinese (including arguments repeated today to justify various global trade policies). And, the characters in his story are pushed and pulled by material and ethical concerns that are still relevant today.

For those unfamiliar with Ghosh's writing, he is very much from the Dumas, Hugo, Dickens lineage in literature. His books are as comfortable and traditional as overstuffed furniture in front of a fire in the den on a wintry night.

I read both volumes of the trilogy back-to-back and would have read the third consecutively if it had been available.

The characters in TRoS are a little more complex than in SoP, but ambiguity is not a staple of these books. Good people are corrupted by the opium trade and its proliferation. It's an historical fact that the trade for the four years ending in 1839 expanded several times over and while not getting into numbers, Ghosh's story reflects this fact.

The English do not come off well in Ghosh's portrayal. And this is not to say that they should. But the fact that the Chinese emperors allowed the opium trade for as long as they did is given but lip service and that from one of the more repugnant characters in the book.

Some readers have expressed surprise that TRoS did not make the Booker Prize list this year. It shouldn't be too much of a surprise as the book does have its faults.

The linkage of the two books seems clunky on two accounts: 1) characters prominent in the first volume inexplicably fade to the background in the TRoS, after it seemed that the characters would assume major roles at the end of SoP; and 2) the roles assigned to some characters who are carried over seem superfluous. The character of Deeti, who assumed leadership of the Indian immigrants in SoP inexplicably is nearly a ghost in TRoS. What's that about?

Ghosh does increase interest in TRoS by exploring themes of a global economy. Economic historians frequently point out that the 19th century featured freer trade globally than we do in today's more regulated environment. Clearly Ghosh sees the harm in letting market forces, and those who invariably manipulate them, rule.
But Ghosh seems to be setting up a third volume which could explore to some degree the emergence of India and China as emerging economies, which of course is highly relevant to our global economy today.

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on February 12, 2012
Sea of Poppies was a very good picaresque novel, with a sensibility for its characters somewhat like Dickens, a mixture of compassion and condemnation, though generally not unsympathetic toward those it condemned. This second novel in the series has many characters that only exist, seemingly, to parrot ideological positions. The "free trade" fanqui community is a particularly egregious collection of pasteboard cutouts. All this despite a beautiful, lyrical beginning to the novel. It sadly slides away from the stories of people to the broadest of cartoon sketches of the outset of the Opium War, as well as a (deserved) attack on neoliberalism.
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on November 22, 2011
No finer storyteller than Amitov Ghosh can be found, but this novel is more ethnography than adventure, truer to the anthropologist Ghosh than to Ghosh the skillful weaver of tall tales. Like many other Ghosh fans, I eagerly awaited the further adventures of the characters I had grown to love in Sea of Poppies. That Paulette here spends so many pages furthering her knowledge of botany is commendable, but it hardly compares to her previous life as a ward of the fussy Burnhams, her bold departure from them, and her emotional involvements with Jodu and Zachary. It's hard to love River of Smoke's Bahram the way one loved Sea of Poppies' Kalua, hard to stick with the narrative expositions of Neel and Ah Fat after sharing in their deprivation, degradation and remarkable bonding during the Ibis voyage. To enjoy this book it's best to settle in, yield to Ghosh's marvelous facility with languages, his vivid descriptions of places and conditions, his erudite grasp of detail. And the stirring universality of his message comes through despite the narrow historic and geographical focus of his tale.
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on November 14, 2015
Ghosh is a very clever wordsmith, and his knowledge of slang, colloquialism, and epithet of the period extends to several languages; he also has an extensive knowledge of maritime technology, geopolitics, and other elements of the historical background; however, the story basically skims along on the surface. Characters don't develop and it's hard to become engaged with them on any but the most perfunctory level. This second volume of the trilogy is about 75% backstory of characters who were either introduced in the first volume, or who are new to the story here. What actually happens in this volume occurs in the last 150-200 pages, but it's drawn out and artificially delayed. Much of the language seems to be neologistic, although it's possible that these were real words and expressions at the time. I have six dictionaries of historical terms and slang, though, and I found few of them. He's very funny, and his depictions of the British Raj are outsized and appropriately caricatured, as are his stereotypical Indians and Chinese characters. After reading roughly 1200 pages of this, though, I've decided to take a break before finishing the trilogy. There's a lot of tedium here, and a quality line-editor could have streamlined much of the prose for him.
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on October 23, 2015
River of Smoke continues Amitav Ghosh' fascinating historical, mutli-cultural, multi-lingual story. This is the second book of The Ibis trilogy. I strongly recommend reading the first book, Sea of Poppies, first. I made the mistake of reading River of Smoke first, went back and read Sea of Poppies, then re-read River of Smoke. I don't know if I've ever read a book twice within a month's time and enjoyed it immensely both times! I am about to begin the final book in the trilogy, Flood of Fire, and I can't wait.
Because of the mulit-lingual aspect of these books, they are not easy reading. If you decide to skip the words that you don't understand or can't pronounce, you will miss a lot. Work on it and work it out. There is a glossary at the end of Sea of Poppies which is very helpful.
I couldn't put these stunning books down. I learned a lot, laughed a lot, cried a little and was consistently amazed.
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on October 18, 2011
Just finished reading Amitav Gosh's new book, the second of the Ibis trilogy, River of Smoke. The first book in the trilogy, Sea of Poppies, is primarily based in eastern India, the production center for opium controlled by British companies and businessmen. The second book is mostly based in Canton, the gateway to opium smuggling into rest of China. It is an interesting book and gives the reader a good understanding the events leading to the Opium Wars. As a management consultant I couldn't help notice that the trilogy progressing along the opium value chain and how the business men (drug lords) justify their actions in the name of basic human right of "free trade."

The book has a cast of characters - Chinese and foreigners in Canton - and like a number of past characters in Gosh's books, one gets to see a land from the eye of an expat or a foreigner. I personally enjoy this style as it provides a certain amount of objectivity and sometimes provides a global context to events.

The only part of the book which I did not enjoy much was the long letters that Robert Chinnery, a new character introduced in this book, writes to Paulette Lambert (Puggly). The letters begin with Robert telling Puggly about Canton and these letters though informative are like social or historical lessons. It seems like Gosh wanted to give us a full picture of Canton and uses the letters as a device.

Definitely a book to read and I will wait for the last book of the trilogy. Now to talk about the film adaptation; who do you think would be the best director to take on this project?
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on October 23, 2014
River of Smoke is only vaguely a sequel to Sea of Poppies. The book is about Canton, not Mauritius. Few of the characters move across between the books, but this doesn't in fact matter, because essentially the books are separate.

Amitav Ghosh is rightly recognised for the depth of the historical research behind his novels. But in River of Smoke, the historical research takes over and eclipses the novel, rather than providing context for it. The first half of the book is almost entirely a loosely told history,even including an irrelevant section on Napoleon.

A weak storyline does emerge in the second half, but it still plays a secondary role to the history of the opium trade. This history is interesting, which makes the book still very readable, but it's not presented as authentic history, so that the book doesn't really work in either genre, novel or history.

Geoff Crocker Editor Atheist Spirituality web site
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on May 3, 2016
Once again Amitav Ghosh has written an engaging historically based fictional novel that is entertaining and insightful about the the late 19th century collision of East and West in River Of Smoke (2011). This novel focuses on the selling of opium produced in colonial India and sold to the Chinese to make up for the deficit of trade in which Chinese goods flow out and no English goods flowed in-so historically they created a opium epidemic and naturally this novel gives a fictional account of how the Chinese fought back (created blow back?) and tried to stop the influx of the damaging drug, which lead to the Opium Wars of the late 19th century. But it is a novel that is about more than that. Ghosh has also touched on the rise of and development of horticulture that evolved from colonial pursuits as well. And the artistic accomplishments of artist trying to capture reality and artist who were obsessed with capturing life as they saw it, bu there were also the human sagas of ambition, love, honor, and survival that fill the pages of this second volume of an epic story of the clash between east and west. I am looking forward to the final volume, bu they are no small undertaking weighing in at over 500 pages per volume, but there is a lot of enjoyment packed into each volume as well.
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on December 24, 2012
Balzac (and lots of people after him) thought that "Behind every great fortune there is a crime." Nowhere is that aphorism more baldly illustrated than in the 19th-Century opium trade that enriched England, Scotland, and the United States and created a score of hereditary fortunes that have left their mark on the world for nearly two centuries since. After all, when Europeans introduced China to the practice of mixing opium with tobacco in the mid-18th Century, the one-sided trade in Chinese porcelain, tea, silk, and other goods was rapidly draining Europe of silver and reinforcing China's position as the world's richest country. The opium trade reversed that trend. Early in the 19th Century, with the Industrial Revolution gathering force in Europe, China's nearly two-century-long decline was underway. Meanwhile, massive profits from opium enriched the endowments of Harvard and Yale, helped build Princeton and Columbia Universities; launched the fortunes of the Astors, the Delanos (FDR's grandparents); and bankrolled the Bell Telephone Company, antecedent of AT&T.

River of Smoke is the second book in Amitav Ghosh's planned Ibis trilogy set among the momentous events of the massive 19th-Century opium trade between India and China. The first book in the trilogy, Sea of Poppies, set the scene with an in-depth look at the harvesting and manufacture of opium in India. River of Smoke details the life at sea and in the foreign enclave in Canton of the immensely rich men who dominated the trade, principally Britons.

Ghosh's sprawling novel spans the years 1838 and 1839, detailing the events in South China that led to the First Opium War. The central plot-line follows the journey of a poor Indian Parsi (Zoroastrian) named Bahram who had risen to lead the trade division of a celebrated Mumbai shipbuilding company owned by his wealthy in-laws. Though not yet rich himself, Bahram has become the dean of the Indian opium traders, realizing profits for the family as great as those of many of the British and Americans but, in the racist fashion of the times, he is looked down upon as "inferior." However, he comes to play a principal role in the traders' increasingly tense and threatening dealings with the newly energized Chinese government, which has resolved to end the opium trade. (Bahram is the author's invention, but the English and American traders depicted in the novel come straight from the pages of history.)

Any lover of language will find the writing of Amitav Ghosh irresistible. I certainly did. Both the dialogue and the narrative text in Sea of Poppies were enchanting. Ghosh had immersed himself in contemporaneous dictionaries and wordlists of 1830s India and Britain to reproduce the language and the vocabulary of not one but several English dialects. In fact, a great many of the novel's characters are historical figures who left behind memoirs, letters, parliamentary testimony, and other records, and as Ghosh notes in his acknowledgments, "Much that is said in this book is taken from [the characters'] own words." Even more colorful is the hybrid language that emerged from the marriage of English and Hindi and surfaces in dialogue throughout the book. But in River of Smoke, it's the pidgin of 19th-Century Canton that stands out, and wonderful it is to behold!
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