Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I put this book on my to-read list after hearing an interview with Ghosh on the radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge. The part of the interview I found most intriguing was the discussion about the language in the book, and that’s a large part of what I enjoyed about the book itself. The amalgamation of Bengali, French, English, various other Indian and Chinese dialects, and 19th-century maritime patois made the reading somewhat slow-going at times, but I was surprised at just how much meaning I could glean from a sentence composed of words I couldn’t necessarily define individually.
Ghosh’s characters show their caste and breeding—or the caste and breeding they hope to project—through their choice of language. I enjoyed reading about the language-related misunderstandings that happen to the characters and about how the characters choose to resolve these misunderstandings, if they choose to resolve them at all.
Throughout the book runs a theme of karma, fate, and rebirth, especially the idea that many of us seem to encounter the same challenges and the same lessons over and over and over again. Through his characters, Ghosh explores how we end up falling back into the same patterns despite our attempts to break free from the cycle. And, of course, the American is the only one who knows only one language; it’s disappointing because it’s true.
An especially poignant element in the book is the transcendent power of caring for another person. Ghosh shows how this process can bring out a person’s compassion and humanity and suggests that it is impossible to physically care for someone without coming to love them at least a little bit. I experienced this when I was attending births as a doula back before I became a mother. I couldn’t not fall a little in love with a mom whose back I rubbed for two hours straight or who clung to my neck while she swayed through contractions. I have an embarrassing tendency towards judgmental thinking, but when I’m in a position of intimacy like doula work offered me, the judgments just fell away. That kind of vulnerability carries with it an element of danger, though; when we open our hearts, we open it not only to the love that others might send our way but also to insults, slights, and other hurts. This is a lesson Ghosh’s characters learn as well.
Throughout the book also runs this sense of identity—how we acquire it, how we shape it, how we attempt to elude it, how it’s something thrust upon us. Who are we underneath the face and clothes and other surface elements we present to the world? Who are we separate from our families, our traditions, our race, the land of our birth? Can we ever really know? If we can’t know ourselves, how can anyone else know us?
Yet through this haze of seemingly perpetual alienation, we sometimes stumble across another person whom we seem to know immediately upon meeting them. It’s this kismet that drives the plot of Sea of Poppies.
The ending was abrupt but fitting, and I find myself wanting to go back and read the book again to look for more clues about the direction the book will take. I did take some time to skim back through, but I’ve got too many other books to read to immediately re-read this one. It will be on my re-read list, though.
3 Replies to “Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh”
Great review! Sounds like I should be moving this one onto the priority list… 🙂
Thanks! I have a friend who doesn’t dig Ghosh, but I really liked this book. I look forward to hearing what you think of it!