The Books of Amitav Ghosh

I just finished Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke. Wow. What a book! It’s the second of three books in the Ibis trilogy. The first, Sea of Poppies was every bit as good. And I eagerly await the publication of the third book, Flood of Fire – due in August 2015. Our excellent local, indie bookseller, Greenlight Bookstore, has had readings and signings by Mr. Ghosh for the previous books. I’ll keep an eye out for a repeat performance. (I have the 2nd book signed, if he comes back I’ll get numbers one and two!)

But about the books… they follow a fascinating cast of characters brought together on the decks and in the hold of the Ibis, a merchantman originally intended for the heroin trade but refitted during a lull in the market for transporting “coolies” from India to Mauritius. The characters are compelling, coming from all walks of life and varied ethnic backgrounds. They are marvelously flawed and human. The topics are fascinating, including morality, food, free (more or less) trade, colonialism, horticulture, art, language, familial expectations and many more. And all of this takes place in a setting that I knew little about – the 19th century trade between India (or largely it’s colonial masters) and China. Amitav Ghosh has a knack for creating vivid backdrops. The foreign trade section of Canton, especially, is practically another character in the most recent novel.

Trade has often fascinated me, especially in settings and times where merchants were setting off into the unknown or without the benefits of modern communication. Accounts of trade in the ancient Mediterranean are remarkable for their cosmopolitan nature. And Mr. Ghosh’s Ibis books have inspired me to dig out my copy of Arab Seafaring (which covers trade in the Indian Ocean from ancient to early medieval times) and look for additional resources. K. N. Chaudhuri’s Trade and Civilization in the Indian Ocean looks good too. Trade extended from China to the east coast of Africa (and presumably overland to the Mediterranean via Egypt and Asiatic routes) — and without any communication that traveled faster than the goods themselves.

I should mention two other Amitav Ghosh books I’ve read. The Glass Palace, which covered the fortunes of families in Burma (Myanmar) and abroad from the British invasion in 1885 to the post-WW2 period. Again, vivid, compelling characters, settings and plots. The book sparked my interest in what is now Myanmar, so the recent opening of the country (to some extent, anyway…) was especially exciting! The other, The Hungry Tide, takes place in modern times in the Sundurbans (a chaotic region of mangrove-encrusted and occasionally tidally inundated islands on the northern shore of the Bengal Sea, extending from India, south of Kolkata into Bangladesh). One of the main characters is a marine biologist studying an endangered river dolphin. As a reformed marine biologist and a lover of mangroves and estuarine environments, I found myself connecting with the book very easily. Mr. Ghosh’s usual ability to create a scene only made it that much better.

Enough for now. Cheers!

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