Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies is easily the most engaging and enthralling book I have read since Michael Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. People say that literature is dead due to the internet, the Kindle, television, etc. but the production of such classics in our modern age tells a whole different story. Like Chabon, Ghosh knows that a truly engaging story is holistic - it spans time, distance and many different characters, bringing all those elements in to create one big magnum opus.
I started my review before completely finishing the book because I wanted some of the emotions that the book stirred to still be recent. Ghosh goes alot of places with this book and some are very uncomfortable. In the second part, Ghosh jumps from a ridiculous scene in which a English girl who had grown up in India, Pauleene, tries desperately to become a member of the ship Ibis, the center piece of this book and the other two remaining books in the Ibis trilogy, to a very raw scene in which Neel, a high caste Indian royal who is framed for forgery and ends up serving seven years in jail, finds himself taking care of an opium addict.
As anyone who came across Radical Second Things knows, my fiance Jennifer passed away almost three months ago - most likely of a pain medication related cause. Jen was heavily addicted to opiod pain meds and spent quite a bit of time trying to acquire them. Opiod meds like Vicoden, Percoset, etc. are made from the same source as heroin - opium - and whether smoked, injected or taken as a pill, the result is the same. The prisoner sounded alot like what Jen looked like in her latter day and I couldn't help but relate to Neel, a flawed character by no doubt but still in a much better position to take care of someone who had fallen so far. This was definitely the toughest part of the book for me to read and its contrast with humor only pages before show Ghosh's range.
Ghosh portrays the opium addict earlier on in the book with the character of Deeti, whose husband is an addict. Like Neel, Deeti takes on the role of caretaker for someone who seems almost resigned to a dark fate. Deeti's husband is impotent - a possible fate of his opium addiction, as such drugs often kill sex drives along with digestive function and many other key parts of the human body.
Like any good tale, Sea Of Poppies genuinely surprises. The method by which Ghosh introduces various characters - only to have them all come together around the shared experience of the Ibis ship - is the sort of thing that, when effectively done, makes for classic material. Stay tuned for my second part of the review, which I'll publish when I'm done with the book completely.