Synopses & Reviews
A Washington Post
Notable Fiction Book for 2011
The Ibis, loaded to its gunwales with a cargo of indentured servants, is in the grip of a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal; among the dozens flailing for survival are Neel, the pampered raja who has been convicted of embezzlement; Paulette, the French orphan masquerading as a deck-hand; and Deeti, the widowed poppy grower fleeing her homeland with her lover, Kalua.
The storm also threatens the clipper ship Anahita, groaning with the largest consignment of opium ever to leave India for Canton. And the Redruth, a nursery ship, carries Frederick “Fitcher” Penrose, a horticulturist determined to track down the priceless treasures of China that are hidden in plain sight: its plants that have the power to heal, or beautify, or intoxicate. All will converge in Cantons Fanqui-town, or Foreign Enclave: a tumultuous world unto itself where civilizations clash and sometimes fuse. It is a powder keg awaiting a spark to ignite the Opium Wars.
Spectacular coincidences, startling reversals of fortune, and tender love stories abound. But this is much more than an irresistible page-turner. The blind quest for money, the primacy of the drug trade, the concealment of base impulses behind the rhetoric of freedom: in River of Smoke the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries converge, and the result is a consuming historical novel with powerful contemporary resonance. Critics praised Sea of Poppies for its vibrant storytelling, antic humor, and rich narrative scope; now Amitav Ghosh continues the epic that has charmed and compelled readers all over the globe.
"Find a story line there are a number of them in the second installment of Ghosh's Ibis trilogy (after the Booker Prize shortlisted Sea of Poppies) and hang on for dear life or risk being lost at sea in this tour of mid 19th-century south Asia. This crowded novel is in turn confusing and exhilarating, crammed with chaotic period detail and pidgin languages. Three ships barely survive an Indian Ocean cyclone in late 1838. Their passengers, each possessing a secret, wash up in Canton (now Guangzhou), China. They are as varied as the region, among them the disgraced young raja, Neel; the Parsi opium trader, Bahram; his bastard Chinese son, Ah Fatt; the Cornish botanist, 'Fitcher' Penrose; and the French orphan, Paulette. Neel becomes Bahram's scribe; Paulette becomes Fitcher's assistant, even though Canton bars foreign women from entry. The prelude to the opium wars plays out, as the Chinese emperor tries to resist British arguments for free trade to support their role in the drug trade. The fallout from the soured diplomacy creates obstacles to Penrose's research as well as to the personal fates of Bahram and the others. Ghosh is a highly imaginative, articulate writer. The dialects he mimics are delightful, as are the vignettes and asides that make up the bulk of this book. But a stronger plot would have helped the reader navigate all the sampans and samosas, opium dreams and camellias." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"On one level, [River of Smoke] is a remarkable feat of research, bringing alive the hybrid customs of food and dress and the competing philosophies of the period with intimate precision; on another it is a subversive act of empathy, viewing a whole panorama of world history from the 'wrong' end of the telescope. The real trick, though, is that it is also fabulously entertaining." Tim Adams, The Observer (London)
"Eloquent...Fascinating...[River of Smoke's] strength lies in how thoroughly Ghosh fills out his research with his novelistic fantasy, seduced by each new situation that presents itself and each new character, so that at their best the scenes read with a sensual freshness as if they were happening now." Tessa Hadley, The Guardian
"[This] vast book has a Dickensian sweep of characters, high- and low-life intermingling....Ghosh conjures up a thrilling sense of place." The Economist
A New York Times Book Review Editors Choice
A Washington Post Notable Fiction Book of Year
A NPR Best Book of the Year In Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies, the Ibis began its treacherous journey across the Indian Ocean, bound for the cane fields of Mauritius with a cargo of indentured servants. Now, in River of Smoke, the former slave ship flounders in the Bay of Bengal, caught in the midst of a deadly cyclone. The storm also threatens the clipper ship Anahita, groaning with the largest consignment of opium ever to leave India for Canton. Meanwhile, the Redruth, a nursery ship, carries horticulturists determined to track down the priceless botanical treasures of China. All will converge in Cantons Fanqui-town, or Foreign Enclave, a powder keg awaiting a spark to ignite the Opium Wars. A spectacular adventure, but also a bold indictment of global avarice, River of Smoke is a consuming historical novel with powerful contemporary resonance.
About the Author
Amitav Ghosh is the internationally bestselling author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Glass Palace, and is the recipient of numerous awards and prizes. Ghosh divides his time between Kolkata and Goa, India, and Brooklyn, New York.
Reading Group Guide
1. The opening scenes recount Deetis survival after she and Kalua escaped the Ibis. She insists that destiny, not chance, led her to the site of her hidden shrine. For her, what does destiny mean? What legacies does she pass on to the next generation?
2. Like many of the novels characters, Ah Fatt and Robin Chinnery have bicultural ancestries. What limitations and freedoms accompany their lack of a legitimate, aristocratic bloodline? Do ancestry and prestige go hand in hand in River of Smoke?
3. Discuss Bahrams and Fitchers motivations. Are they simply greedy?
4. Paulette is a master of disguise and can comfortably move between cultures. What does she consider to be her true identity? Why is horticulture a suitable field for her?
5. Discuss the role of religion in shaping the characters view of the world. When Christian characters justify the opium trade, how do they reconcile it with their faith? (You may enjoy revisiting Charles Kings letter to Charles Elliot near the books final pages.)
6. Bahram and Zadig discuss the experience of having an additional, foreign wife, debating whether love is a factor. How does the relationship between Bahram and Chi-mei change over the years? Would Bahram enjoy Canton as much if he werent a foreigner?
7. How do the trilogys ships—the formerly slave-trading Ibis, Fitchers practical but eccentric-looking Redruth, and the treasure-laden Anahita (named for the Zoroastrian angel)—reflect their passengers?
8. In chapter seven, Robins letter describes the Pearl River as a suburb of Canton. In chapter thirteen, Zadig recalls the legend that claims the river got its name from a foreign trader who dropped a mysterious pearl. Drawing on these and other impressions, discuss the Pearl River as a character: how would you describe its powers and its personality?
9. Consider Ghoshs penchant for intertwining fates. For example, Ah Fatt had been Neels companion in the labor prison, while Neel (qualified to work as a munshi because of the education that accompanied his noble status) is close by when Mr. Punhyqua is arrested, marking the unlikely fall of another member of the ruling class. Does Ghosh create tragicomedy or pure irony in story lines such as these?
10. Near the end of chapter six, Bahram has a chance encounter with Napoleon (a scene inspired by reported encounters between the French emperor and seafaring traders). If you had been in Bahrams position, what would you have asked Napoleon?
11. Chapter two depicts Bahrams slippery ladder escape, echoed in the last chapter. What is the effect of watching Paulette observe the aftermath of the dangling ladder? What do you imagine for Bahram after those final moments?
12. Explore the novels closing scene, in which Deeti and Neel look at Robins prophetic painting. Through his art and his letters, what vision of history does Robin present? Is this vision different from the novels?
13. Although Neel is a fictional character, he was inspired by an 1820s court case in which a wealthy Bengali was convicted of forgery and sentenced to servitude. How was your reading affected by the blend of real-life and imagined figures?
14. Amitav Ghosh revels in the written word, compiling Neels amusing, extensive Chrestomathy in Sea of Poppies and playfully exploring the French influence on the vocabulary of Deeti and other sojourners. What makes Ghoshs approach to language unique?
15. What do you predict for the third installment of the Ibis trilogy?
16. What can the modern world learn about economics and humanity from this novel? Is the history of the Opium Wars—with international trade rivalries such as Dent and Jardines—repeating itself?
Guide written by Amy Clements / The Wordshop, Inc.