Sea of Poppies
An epic tale of the opium trade in 1838 and its far-reaching effects, Sea of Poppies is a book of amazing skill and scope. Following the fates of a wildly diverse caste of characters, from an American freedman passing as white to an Indian widow who escaped from her husband’s funeral pyre, the book spins a series of picaresque tales illuminating the impact of the opium trade on individuals and on India. As each character finds his or her way to the opium ship Ibis, the stories merge into one, as the desire to break free of the poppy trade leads to defiance and mutiny.
But while the author has done a brilliant job, there are several problems with this book, at least for me. For one thing, the author doesn’t seem to know what an Englishwoman’s clothing of the period is really like (stays are not attached to underdrawers!). For another, almost every person talks in some form of heavily-accented pidgin that I found really unpleasant (it’s no more attractive when the author’s name is Ghosh than it is when the author’s name is Smith). Everyone speaks such heavy period slang it’s almost unintelligible (even if you’re familiar with Hobson-Jobson, which I am). One Englishman talks in such thick qui-hai I don’t think even he knows what he’s saying! Here’s a sample of one of the lascars talking, taken at random: “Launder say father-bhongi-she go hebbin. That bugger do too muchi tree-pijjin…” I don’t mind a bit of pidgin to set the tone, but all the lascars talk like this all the time. The book has a great setting and a great plot, but I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did.