Waves Threaten, But Never Come to Crest in ‘Sea of Poppies’

'Sea of Poppies,' by Amitav Ghosh (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

There are many different types of failure. There is the spectacular collapse of a work that crumbles under the weight of its own ambition. There is the unmourned death of a work that fails even to reach low expectations. And there is the agonizing tragedy of a work that should succeed—greatness is in its sights—but just cannot close the gap between mediocrity and magnificence.

Amitav Ghosh’s new novel, “Sea of Poppies,” certainly has impressive hopes for itself. Perhaps its pure ambition was responsible for the book’s place on the short list for the Man Booker Prize. Ghosh juggles four or five storylines, a handful of countries, and a variety of languages (both official and pidgin) across 500 pages—and “Sea of Poppies” is only the first book in a planned trilogy.

In an interview with British newspaper The Guardian, Ghosh called the books the Ibis trilogy, after the former slave-ship that is this novel’s real principle character. Throughout the whole novel, there is the delicate tension that comes from knowing that the main event is yet to come, a state of pleasant anxiety in knowing that, whatever harrowing adventures might befall the characters, they are mere preparation for what is to occur later.

This novel opens on the cusp of the Opium Wars, with the chaos of the Far East’s opium trade visible just over the precipice. Deeti, an Indian peasant whose husband is an addict, spends her days tending the poppy fields that the sahibs (rulers of the province) forced her and those like her to cultivate. Where once they had planted crops that would feed their families, they now tend waving fields of blossoms that will one day become the opium manufactured in the local factory and shipped to greedy merchants in Britain and China.

Also introduced in this first novel, although not developed enough to make it satisfying in its own right, is a golden thread of mysticism that melds art and spirituality. While bathing in the Ganga, Deeti receives a vision of a double-masted ship with a bird at the prow—the Ibis. Without knowing who or what it carries, or even having seen such a ship before, the sense of its significance overwhelms Deeti, and she hangs a portrait of the Ibis in her family shrine.

It is hinted that other figures will come to have their portraits hung next to the Ibis in the shrine—Zachary, the light-skinned freedman who rises from carpenter to first-mate on the Ibis during its disastrous journey from America; Jodu, a young boatman who grew up in the household of an aristocratic Frenchman; Neel, a fading maharajah—but by the end of this novel they have only just come together onboard the real ship. The volume’s closing image is of Deeti and Zachary on the deck of the Ibis, the first physical meeting of the two, but one that Deeti has foreseen.

In its plot and construction, the novel encompasses a great deal. The spin and swirl of an era of infinite possibilities and insufficient reason come through, as do the twin intoxicants of opium and love. Customs dissolve, hierarchy crumbles, social worlds collapse, and all of the wreckage tumbles onto the deck of the Ibis. The virtue of the novel, as opposed to the history, is in its ability to dramatize that tumbling on every level, down to the word itself. The best novels convey the essence of their story in any single sentence.

While Ghosh has a capacious imagination and a nimble authorial voice, his prose does not share in the exoticism of his story. There is no “odour of spices creeping through the timbers” in his words, as there is on the Ibis. Ghosh does attempt to evoke that aroma, but to do so he relies on the exoticism of foreign languages rather than the exoticism possible through rhetorical artistry.

There are so many imported words, though, and he uses them so liberally that the effect is more exhausting than evocative. Passages like the following, from a British merchant fluent in the hodge-podge speech of Far Eastern port towns, confuse and distract rather than educate: “Now there was another chuckmuck sight for you! Rows of cursies for the sahibs and mems to sit on. Sittringies and tuckiers for the natives. The baboos puffing at their hubble-bubbles and the sahibs lighting their Sumatra buncuses. Cunchunees whirling and ticky-taw boys beating their tobblers...” And so it goes for an entire page. The jerks from one end of the linguistic spectrum to the other serve no one well, least of all the reader.

There are rich possibilities within “Sea of Poppies” that never come to bloom. With such an ambitious reach, Ghosh’s novel ought to make the reader a part of its historical present. Excellence is within reach, but the fact that it is only makes this novel’s failure to reach it all the more disappointing. With two more novels left in the trilogy, there is hope that Ghosh’s Ibis will transcend its pages and join the company of Melville’s Pequod and Conrad’s Nellie, its obvious ancestors. Perhaps, as is the case within the novel, the novel itself is merely prelude to great things yet to come.

—Staff writer Jillian J. Goodman can be reached at jjgoodm@fas.harvard.edu.