River of Smoke
The Opium Wars bring new trials – and fresh adventures – to the cast of characters introduced in the rollicking "Sea of Poppies."
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The second book of a trilogy is a bit like the middle set of a tennis match: However engrossing the action, whatever happens at the end will necessarily recolor what happened before. River of Smoke, the midway point in Amitav Ghosh’s "Ibis" trilogy – his chronicle of the Opium Wars, the 19th-century contest between the English Empire and the Qing Dynasty over the fate of trade in China – is densely packed with happenings and intrigue without ever managing to come together as a novel in its own right. Instead, it reads as a very long prelude to what one can only presume will be the outbreak of war in the as-yet-unpublished third book.
When we last saw the motley cast of indentured servants, seamen, and stowaways at sea on the Ibis, the chaos of a storm had split the passengers, with the ship headed for Port Louis and a band of escaped captives fleeing for Singapore. The second volume picks up with Deeti, the widow rescued from the fires of self-immolation at the beginning of "Sea of Poppies," now the wise elder of an extended clan in Mauritius.
Her memories form the novel’s frame, but for the intervening years Ghosh trades his most compelling character for three of the other Ibis shipmates – Neel the bankrupt Raja; Ah Fatt, his opium-addicted cell mate; and Paulette Lambert, the aspiring botanist with a penchant for cross-dressing. Given the unwieldy number of characters Ghosh was juggling at the end of "Sea of Poppies," his strangest move here is to add two major principals – Ah Fatt’s father Seth Bahram Modi, a rags-to-riches opium merchant from Bombay, and Robin Chinnery, a flamboyant painter and childhood friend to Paulette.
Bahram, at least, elevates the novel. As the tensions between England and China over the fate of the opium trade escalate, Bahram embodies the human cost at the heart of the mounting conflict. Caught between the demands of two empires – geographically, politically, and financially – he is at once an ambassador of the opium trade and its victim. Although he is a major merchant in his own right, Bahram’s status as a colonial subject renders him expendable to the British merchants with whom he keeps company. As his confidante Zadig Bey observes, “Bahram-bhai, you are not an American or an Englishman. You don’t have any warships behind you. If the Chamber had to surrender you or Dent [an Englishman], who do you think they would pick?” His eventual descent into opium addiction gives the endless debates about freedom of trade at the hall of the British East India Company a moral gravity the novel otherwise lacks.