Sea of Poppies takes place in 1838, when the opium trade between British-ruled India and China was in full swing. Opium factories employed hundreds, and farmers were obliged to clear their fields for opium production. Ships that once carried slaves were refitted to carry opium, as well as indentured servants, to other parts of the Empire. Meanwhile, China was determined to stop the trade that turned thousands into addicts. At the center of this saga is the Ibis, an immense ship with a British captain, an American second mate, Indian troops and a crew of Lascars—a term that was used to identify sailors originating from the Pacific Rim. The ship has docked in Calcutta awaiting the arrival of men and women traveling to Mauritius as indentured migrants. The range of characters is as diverse as their lingo, social standing and skin color, yet accomplished novelist Amitav Ghosh suggests the differences are illusory. Clothed in a sari, the orphaned daughter of a French botanist is able to blend in among the migrant workers; the biracial second mate realizes that passing as white can work to his advantage; and a Bengali accountant filled with the spirit of a deceased holy woman begins to experience a shift in gender. Most powerfully, a rich, pampered rajah, charged with bankruptcy, is jailed aboard the Ibis with a derelict opium addict. Though brought low in the utter filth of his shared cell, he is still able to make a treasured human connection.
Ghosh revels in the unique vocabulary of his British, American, French, Indian and Lascar characters, providing a Babel of colloquial phrases and obscure naval terms. Readers can use the glossary at the end of the book, but it's easy enough to catch the tone of the dialogue, where at least the gist is clear. Sea of Poppies is the first in a planned trilogy, which may be why the action in the last quarter of the book steps up to a feverish pace. You can almost hear the narrative gears grinding as Ghosh maneuvers everyone into place to create a cliffhanger ending. But this doesn't take away from the rollicking energy and heart of a very engaging novel.
Lauren Bufferd writes from Nashville.
This review refers to the Oct. 2008 hardcover edition.