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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  Overcast
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A Book A Week: Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh writes huge, sprawling historical novels about India and South Asia. I read The Glass Palace last year and loved it. Sea of Poppies is the first volume of a trilogy set in India in the early 19th century, during the First Opium War.

It tells the story of the owners, crew and passengers of the Ibis, a former slave ship that has been retrofitted to carry indentured servants ("coolies") from India to Mauritius, where they will work on the sugar plantations. It seemed to me that Ghosh is using the Ibis as a metaphor for India itself: a melting pot where disparate cultures, religions, castes and classes come together. The ensuing conflicts are brutal, but some people also find hope and at least a chance of happiness.

Ghosh populates the Ibis with a fascinating crowd of characters, including several I really got attached to. Despite the cast of thousands, I never had trouble keeping track of them, though I did sometimes struggle to understand them. Ghosh has researched and re-created the slang and sometimes entire dialects of the time period, and there are pages of dialogue on which I could barely understand a word. Note to readers: Ghosh is a good enough writer to craft the action and subsequent dialogue in such a way that you can always figure out what is happening in the dialect-laden scenes. Just forge ahead with confidence and you won't miss anything.

India in the early 19th century was disease-ridden and perilous. Society was repressive, punitive and unjust. And what were the British up to with the opium? Absolutely beyond shameful. The stories in this book enraged me, even if it was over events that occurred almost 200 years ago. I can't wait to read the next volume, River of Smoke. Ghosh is still writing the as-yet-untitled volume three.

Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.

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