Sea of Poppies

David Simpson writes:

Amitav Ghosh’s most recent novel, Sea of Poppies, is the first in a promised trilogy about the 19th-century opium trade and its effects on the lives of a group of variously ordinary people: a young widow, an American sailor, a Krishna-worshipper who imagines himself as a woman, a heroic Untouchable, a Parsee-Chinese convict, an enigmatic lascar, a Francophone orphan, a boat boy, a rajah bilked by a ruthless British businessman – and many others. ‘Alternative’ history is again central: here the point of interest is the Ghazipur opium factory, details of whose workings Ghosh has scrupulously reassembled from the records kept by a former superintendent. The sordid story of the opium monoculture imposed in Bihar, responsible for some 20 per cent of the wealth of British India, has apparently been little studied; it’s gripping. One could say, and Ghosh does say elsewhere, that the British Empire was sustained by opium, and by setting this novel in the 1830s he is able to refer to the genesis of the war that was fought to force China to accept the import of opium.

(LRB 22 October 2009)

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