Books · China

River of Smoke- book review

It took me a long time, but I finally finished Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke, the second book in his Ibis trilogy. This trilogy follows a group of characters on a journey from India to Mauritius to China in the leadup to the Opium War. River of Smoke was quite hefty, being a little less than 600 pages, but it was more a combination of laziness and being distracted that resulted in me taking months to read it. It focuses on several characters, including a distinguished Indian opium magnate, and several fellows who escaped a ship (from the first book) and made their way to Guangdong, China, right before the Opium War. It starts off a bit slow, and meanders for a while as it alternates between several main characters, which makes it confusing at time. The book is rich in the descriptions of the opium trade in Guangdong, as well as the physical environment and lifestyle of the British, American and Indian merchants living in the foreign compound, getting rich from importing opium whilst being self-righteous and callous about the effect of their trade on the Chinese and China’s laws. There’s a bit of Cantonese Chinglish dialogue, following convention from the first book where there was a lot of dialogue in the sort of mixed dialect the sailors of that time spoke.

The novel picks up though in the second half as things get more tense, due to the arrival of a new governor, the moral and resolute Lin Zexu, to clamp down on the burgeoning and destructive opium trade. Lin soon does so, besieging and striking fear into the British and American merchants who facilitate the opium imports, and ultimately forcing them to give up a vast total of their illicit cargo which he then destroys. Unfortunately this gives the British the ideal reason to make war on China, which led to the Opium War, that will very likely be in the third novel.

A few months ago, I read The Good Earth, for which Pearl S. Buck won a Pulitzer in 1932. Buck would also win the Nobel literature prize for her books about China. The Good Earth is about the life of a humble Anhui peasant who toils and braves famine, floods, and war, to eventually become a wealthy man. In the process, he almost destroys his household, and inevitably, wealth and profit ensure his children will not follow in his footsteps. The book shows the harshness of life in 20th century China, especially for poor rural farmers, as well as the cruelty and pragmatism prevalent in Chinese society.

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