My rating on Goodreads: 3 stars out of 5.
I was disappointed by “Sea of Poppies” (2008) by Amitav Ghosh. Having read “The Glass Palace” (2000), I was expecting a novel of similar quality from “Sea of Poppies.” This book is set up as an epic novel, and while it is certainly epic in scope and in the number of characters it encompasses, I find it is also epic in its failure to give the reader any character of much value or substance. Its reach is too broad, and it is missing a central, strong character to tie it all together.
I will start by saying that I did find the story gripping. Ghosh tells a good tale, and his ability to evoke landscape, color and space make it easy to picture the vivid fields of poppies, the slums of Calcutta and the desolate stretch of an empty ocean. That’s why I’ve given the book three stars: Ghosh knows how to place a cliff-hanger, and the novel’s got an exciting story.
My main complaint, however, is how flat, one-dimensional and completely obvious the characters are. Ghosh leaves no room for interpretation of the cast of “Sea of Poppies.” They are very black-and-white, both in the good-and-bad sense, and, unfortunately, in the sense that white is bad and black is good. There is a clear distinction between the “good” and “bad” characters: all the English characters are brutes, sexual deviants, clueless matrons or gluttons while all the non-English characters are virtuous, unselfish and sympathetic. There are a few exceptions, including Singh and Deeti’s in-laws, and Paulette and her father, who, of course, are not English but French, and have integrated somewhat into local culture, learned the language and rejected the social mores of the dominant Brits. Now don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that the practices of the English as colonizers were in any way excusable, and I am not trying to apologize for colonization. Far from it. But a human being is a subtle and complicated creature, and his or her character is not so easily placed in a category of “good” or “bad” as Ghosh has so disappointingly done.
The “good” characters are, predictably, the coolies, the lascars, the mixed-race second mate Zachary, the metamorphosing gomusta, and the disgraced raja. Bad and good characters, English and non alike, are portrayed as so flat as to make them completely unbelievable. This is in stark contrast to the character of Rajkumar in “The Glass Palace” whom Ghosh writes as so brilliantly complex and intensely real. We love him at times and despise him at others; Ghosh allows us that freedom. But not so with the cast of “Sea of Poppies.” We are told exactly how we are to think of each character, which completely killed any sense of interest or connection I had to this book.
The one exception is Neel, the disgraced raja. I found him to be the most real of all the personalities portrayed: willfully blind to the folly of his business practices as raja, he is humbled in every way imaginable. His disbelief, defiance, rejection and slow resignation to his fate I found to be the most realistically human aspect of this novel. In this person, I saw some flickers of the brilliant characterization of which Ghosh is capable.
I got the impression that Ghosh was trying too hard to make his novel epic by going into the minds of each character at a time. When you think of classic epic novels like “David Copperfield,” or “The Lord of the Rings” (yes, I did just put them into the same category), and even “The Glass Palace,” they all focus on one person as the main character (Copperfield, Frodo, Rajkumar). While we get some deeper glimpses into other characters, the central personality of the novel is the main focal point which brings the others together. In “Sea of Poppies”, the ship “Ibis” seems meant to be this character, but it completely fails to act as anything other than the physical space which the characters share. (Carlos Ruiz Zafon, in “Shadow of the Wind,” uses the city of Barcelona as an influential character which brings the others together, but he also has his main character of Daniel to be the human glue of the novel.)
These reasons, and the fact that I felt like “Sea of Poppies” left me with no better understanding of anything other than human cruelty, mean that I will not be continuing with this trilogy. This book had nothing original to say other than try to tell an interesting story. It felt like I was watching endless episodes of a soap opera, one in which none of the characters are particularly compelling. So I do not feel compelled to pick up book two in the series.
If you’re looking for a good trilogy, check out the Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz.