I recently finished Sea of Poppies, a novel about a random set of people on a ship transporting Indian indentured servants to Mauritius during the mid-nineteenth century just before the Opium War between the British Empire and China breaks out. It’s the latest novel by Amitav Ghosh, the author of one of my favorite books The Glass Palace, so I was really looking forward to reading it. Unexpectedly, it was a little slow and disappointing at the beginning as the book took too long introducing the different characters and progressing to the main plotline, but it got better as it developed. The constant use of a dialect – that spoken by the lascars or sailors from all over South and Southeast Asia- made things difficult, even with a detailed dictionary in the back. Towards the end, things really picked up and the ending left me really wanting to read the sequel. Like all of Ghosh’s other books, this one is strongly rooted in historical and social themes, especially social inequality, cultural diversity and colonialism. Two of the more compelling characters are the widow running from a troubled family past and the Indian nobleman or Raja being cut down (figuratively) from his lofty status by the British.
Sea of Poppies is the first in an intended Ibis (the name of the ship) trilogy. It got a lot of acclaim, including being shortlisted for the 2008 Booker Prize, but I still prefer The Glass Palace by far.