River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh [A Review]

River of Smoke is the second part of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, following Sea of Poppies. Like the first novel, it is an absolute treat and for many of the same reasons. In some ways, Ghosh even ups his game and puts the reader under his seductive spell.

(Note: Since this novel is the second in a trilogy, this review contains a couple of minor spoilers with regards to the first novel, Sea of Poppies)

In 1838, Frederick ‘Fitcher’ Penrose, an English plant-hunter, sails into in Port Louis, Mauritius and heads straight for the botanical gardens. What he finds is a discarded ruin, but perhaps there is an opportunity to pinch some plants from here. He soon finds he is not alone. He catches a young man, tending to some plants. The man says he is Paul Lambert, nephew of the late French botanist Pierre Lambert. But Fitcher isn’t fooled for he knew Pierre Lambert and recognises this ‘man’ as Paulette Lambert, Pierre’s daughter.

Paulette’s story is extraordinary; as we read in Sea of Poppies, she has just managed an escape from British India aboard the Ibis and only arrived on Mauritius a few days ago. Fitcher’s life story, and how he came into his current line of work, is also incredible. Fitcher offers Paulette another adventure; to join him aboard his ship, the Redruth, as he journeys to China. His ship is essentially a floating garden and he could use the expertise of another person who knows how to tend to plants.

In the end it was the Redruth that settled the matter for Paulette – the brig cast a spell that put an end to whatever doubts she may have had about Fitcher’s offer.

But, as Fitcher confesses to Paulette, he has another mission on this journey. Fitcher is in search of a golden camellia; a rare Chinese flower said to cure aging and consumption. Fitcher has a lead on how he may find it – he has in his possession a painting of the flower and hopes he can track down the artist and hence the flower.

Also headed in the same direction is Seth Bahramji Naurozji Modi. Bahram came from a formerly wealthy Parsi family from Bombay, India. Though his family’s wealth eroded, he entered another wealthy family by marriage. His wife’s family had a successful ship-building business, with British merchants and navy among their clients. But Bahram was not cut out for ship-building or accounts; he is much better suited to speculating and trading.

Years ago, he managed to convince his father-in-law to loan him some money and a ship with which to ship opium to China. His voyage was very successful and opium trading became his life. As the years went by, despite no respect or encouragement from his in-laws, his trading business grew while the ship-building business receded. His brothers-in-law now want to fold the company, but Bahram has convinced them to sell the opium-trading arm to himself. In order to buy the business that he created, he has had to borrow extensively to finance his latest voyage, carrying perhaps the largest ever shipment of opium to China. But if he succeeds, he will finally be independent, not to mention very wealthy.

The voyage does not begin well. In a single storm, he loses about a tenth of his cargo. There is still plenty left to pay off his debts and make a profit, but his situation is now far more precarious. There are also persistent rumours that Chinese authorities are finally beginning to crack down on the opium trade. Bahram dismisses such warnings; he has been hearing them his entire career and they never amounted to anything. What he finds when her arrives in China, though, is that the situation and his future is far more uncertain than he expected.

From very early on, I was absolutely loving River of Smoke. The quests of Bahram and Paulette and Fitcher, create a palpable and romantic sense of adventure and discovery that you can only tear yourself away from with difficulty. It is as unputdownable as the best pop fiction but so very well written and researched too. This is despite the fact that there are fewer storylines, the passages for each storyline are longer and, hence, the pace is slower than for Sea of Poppies.

But this was mostly only true for the first third of the novel. Unfortunately, the remainder is very different. In fact, the story of Paulette and Fitcher pretty much ends a third of the way in. Since it is too dangerous for Paulette to venture into Guangzhou (aka Canton), where foreign women are forbidden, Fitcher is not in the best of health and the best way to ensure their garden’s survival would be to plant it; Paulette and Fitcher stay on the largely unpopulated Hong Kong island, to plant a nursery, tend to it and search for new specimens.

Their quest is instead taken up by Robin. A childhood friend of Paulette, Robin has begun a new life for himself in Guangzhou, where he enjoys greater freedom and inspiration than ever in his life before as he pursues a career as an artist. Happy to help Paulette and Fitcher in their quest, Robin is the ideal person to be making enquiries on their behalf as he inserts himself into Guangzhou’s artistic community.

We hear Robin’s efforts in the first-person through his letters to Paulette, telling her about his new life, Guangzhou and his progress in search of the flower. Though it is probably true to his character, I must say I did not care for his ‘voice’ in these letters. It is purely subjective on my part, but I did not look forward to his letters and wished he got to the parts that moved the plot forward sooner.

As I read on and the remaining pages became fewer I had to ask myself where all this is going. The first novel, Sea of Poppies, was very clearly intended to not suffice as a stand-alone novel. Was Ghosh going to leave River of Smoke open-ended and without closure again?

It got me thinking about the structure of trilogies in general. I had thought the favoured structure was for a strong first part that introduces the characters, the universe, and the storylines; a strong third part where everything comes to a conclusion; and a second part that mainly serves as a bridge. There is a danger that the second part might be weak if that is all it does, but there is also a danger that it may eclipse the finale if it does too much.

But is this really the best way to go about it? How much of this ‘structure’ is just a natural storytelling arc, how much is just in the head of the reader? If, in retrospect, the second part turns out to be the strongest, does that really damage the trilogy as a whole? How does it look from the author’s point of view? Do they really have clear intentions in this regard? In the same way that no author can predict how their work will be appreciated, and all authors try to write the best work they can; aren’t they trying to write each part to be equally strong? There is much here that is all hope, intention, subjective interpretation and ultimately unknowable.

As I turned pages and mulled this over in my mind, I remained unaware of the spell Ghosh was weaving all the while. That is because, despite the compelling adventurous beginning, the essence of River of Smoke are its characters.

Particularly Bahram Modi who, on arriving in China, finds himself tested almost beyond endurance. The future of his family back in India, and himself, hang in the balance as the Chinese Emperor and his appointed officials crack down on the opium trade that is enslaving his empire in addiction. For the first time Bahram has to ask himself if he is truly the honest trader of a valued commodity or a drug smuggler trafficking in human misery. Like many traders, Bahram has a second family in China; one he has not provided for or protected as well as he might have.

Bahram unexpectedly finds himself entrapped in Guangzhou. He faces impossible choices between family, friends, fear, guilt, greed, security and the moral teachings of his faith. As the tension between foreign traders and the Chinese authorities slowly rises in Guangzhou, so do the walls close around Bahram.

When they make their future, do you think they will remember us, Zadig Bey? Do you think they will remember what we went through? Will they remember that it was the money we made here, the lessons we learnt and the things we saw that made it all possible? Will they remember that their future was bought at the price of millions of Chinese lives?

Similarly, another key character in the novel is Guangzhou itself. A cosmopolitan jewel, the town is a multi-ethnic, multi-national treasure of commerce, food, art and culture. It was particularly fascinating to read of the united Indian community, almost a national identity, in Guangzhou, long before any such thing existed on the Indian sub-continent. Like Bahram, however, this wonder of the East will be squeezed as the Chinese and British Empires draw closer to war over the not inconsequential matter of opium.

Flowers and opium, opium and flowers!

It is odd to think that this city, which has absorbed so much of the world’s evil, has given in return so much beauty. Reading your letters, I am amazed to think of all the flowers it has sent out into the world: chrysanthemums, peonies, tiger lilies, wisteria, rhododendrons, azaleas, asters, gardenias, begonias, camellias, hydrangeas, primroses, heavenly bamboo, a juniper, a cypress, climbing tea-roses and roses that flower many times over – these and many more. Were it in my power I would enjoin upon every gardener in the world that they remember, when they plant these blooms, that all of them came to their gardens by grace of this one city – this crowded, noisome, noisy, voluptuous place we call Canton.

As I was reading, unsure of where Ghosh was taking me and even a little disappointed at the turn the novel had taken and the voice of Robin; I was unaware of how Ghosh was slowly endearing me to Bahram and Guangzhou before delivering the novel’s fateful conclusion.

Much of what I admired about the style and the use of research in Sea of Poppies continues in River of Smoke. Ghosh really brings his settings – Calcutta, Bombay, Mauritius, Singapore and Guangzhou – alive. There is much exquisite detail for the reader to enjoy – on botany, art, food, history, language and culture – some of it little-known or almost forgotten. This is how historical fiction should be.

River of Smoke is also not a political novel but there is plenty of material here for the reader to peruse and relate to our own time. One is the trade disparity that existed between China and the West – where China had much the West desired but the West had little to offer in return. Opium provided an opportunity to redress the imbalance but if anything was proving too successful with the Chinese succumbing to addiction to the substance and the British becoming too dependent on the revenue.

Then there is the issue of global trade, with the British traders condemning the Chinese for banning opium in the name of free trade while ignoring the fact that opium in also banned in Britain. But perhaps opium and free trade are just means to an end for those whose real aims are guided by Christianisation, racial superiority and global empire.

It is not my hand that passes sentence upon those who choose the indulgence of opium. It is the work of another, invisible, omnipotent: it is the hand of freedom, of the market, of the spirit of liberty itself, which is none other than the breath of God.

If you’ve read Sea of Poppies you may wonder, as I did reading River of Smoke, where is Zachery Reid? Where is Deeti? Where in this second novel of the Ibis Trilogy is the Ibis?

We are given only a little information of where they are; their stories are temporarily suspended and hopefully will be continued. There were a few more characters from the first novel present in River of Smoke than I have let on in this review such as Mr Burnham and especially my favourite character from the first novel; the deposed Raja, Neel, who has a considerable role.

Despite my doubts in the middle of the book, in the end, I liked River of Smoke every bit as much as Sea of Poppies. Ghosh also ends River of Smoke in a way that somehow creates a feeling of closure but with many loose ends. It is now all on for the third novel, Flood of Fire.

For my reviews of the other novels in the Ibis Trilogy, see here.

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2 thoughts on “River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh [A Review]

  1. I’m glad you’re enjoying this trilogy. I think I liked River of Smoke more than Sea of Poppies – as it had fewer storylines and main characters, I found it easier to follow. I agree with you about Robin’s letters, though. He didn’t really interest me as a character and I felt that the letters did very little to move the plot forward. Flood of Fire is great; I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s good to hear from someone else who has read and enjoyed this series, it’s really remarkable and deserves more attention. I’m glad I’m not alone in disliking Robin’s voice but it is a minor thing in an otherwise superb novel.

      Like

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