Review: River of Smoke Is Why The Year Wasn’t As Bad As It Looks

You would think in a year that the Giller short list was described as “unusually strong” the Globe and Mail could have sounded less apologetic about the books which made their Globe 100 (The Very Best Books of 2011).  1Q84: “This colossus is expansive, enthralling, but also an over-long and occasionally exasperating foray into the lure of fanatical beliefs.” A Dance With Dragons:  “The story has expanded far beyond the original characters to become a labyrinthine edifice”. Blue Nights: “This book … is somewhat jumbled.” By Love Possessed: “As a rule, this, broadly deployed, amusingly distances us.”  The word “but” appears 24 times. The book suffers from these faults BUT in the end it was okay.  I guess.  If you really must read something.

I’m not being entirely fair, of course. I’m probably projecting my own feelings about much of what I read of 2011. By some miracle I have actually read two of the books which made the list – The Sisters Brothers and A Dance With Dragons – and my reaction to both titles was pretty similar given how completely different they are. That was fun, I guess. So that happened. The much-lauded Sisters Brothers was definitely the better of the two, being more stylistically adventurous and, you know, succinct.  Unlike Dance it had an idea of where it was going and went there. Along the way I laughed. I appreciated deWitt’s human characters in circumstances which might have more easily fallen into melodrama. But (but) ultimately I found The Sisters Brothers too simple and too shallow. A clever edifice and some elegant language doesn’t make a great book for me. I might never have mentioned anything but for the bewildering heap of awards which continue to rain down on it. If anything I feel the need to mention that I find this bewildering. The book was good. It was not great.

I wonder if the Globe’s many reviewers felt similarly. A year of good books – maybe not great ones, but good. Of course, in a year, how many new releases do we actually manage to read? I’m a slow reader – I only managed 32-ish books this year. Of those a tiny fraction were newly published this year, a nice round five. I’ll name them for you: Pigeon English by Steven KelmanWise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin and River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh. But even in so small a sampling I think I can do the Globe’s reviewers one better, because I thought River of Smoke was absolutely fabulous.

For those of you just tuning in, River of Smoke is Amitav Ghosh’s “sequel” to his 2008 Booker-nominated Sea of Poppies. Calcutta-born Ghosh has said that these books (which Wikipedia describes as “the Ibis trilogy”, though I have heard Ghosh say there may well be more than three of them by the time he’s done with these characters) represent his attempt to show that there existed – and exists – a globalized world exclusive of Western influence. The theme of both books thus far can probably be broadly described as being “trade”, though for Ghosh no ology or ism is outside his purview. We have Free Trade and slavery, colonialism and multiculturalism, racism and camaraderie, modernism and magical realism. Ghosh’s project is to show that we have always been modern, been globalized, and furthermore “we” needn’t necessarily include a single European.

Half way through Sea of Poppies I was skeptical. I felt Ghosh’s politics were simply too heavy-handed. Characters were having the most appallingly contemporary conversations about neo-liberal political ideologies thickened by the worst kind of in-your-face racism. It wasn’t even satire, it was just a blunt stick. An example, from a British trader’s casual conversation in Sea:

‘The war, when it comes, will not be for opium. It will be for a principal: for freedom – for the freedom of trade and for the freedom of the Chinese people. Free Trade is a right conferred on Man by God, and its principals apply as much to opium as to any other article of trade. More so, perhaps, since in its absence many millions of natives would be denied the lasting advantages of British influence.’

So I thought, until I heard Ghosh interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel during the 2008 International Festival of Authors. Then I learned that Ghosh wasn’t just piping his politics through villainous caricatures, but was actually using conversations cribbed entirely from historical archives. This spun my understanding of the novel entirely on its head: this was real. We really were modern. Nothing has changed. This isn’t a new fight. There are valuable lessons to be learned and Ghosh was serving up history in the best possible way.

River of Smoke does not pick up where Sea of Poppies left off. Ghosh smartly avoids the “and then…” soap opera styling that genre fiction almost always falls into (*ahem* A Dance With Dragons) by literally scattering his characters all over the colonized world with one Deus ex hurricane. River follows the storylines of two of Sea‘s main characters, Paulette, the French-Indian botanist and Neel, the Bengali rajah-cum-escaped convict. Both characters find themselves in early 19th century Canton amid the politics and events that lead up to the First Opium War. The effect of the “scattering” is to arrive at an entirely new novel which does not in any way require the reader to have read Sea of Poppies, but continues exploring the events, politics, and connections which informed the far East.

Ghosh can do it all, as far as I’m concerned. His writing is stylish, poetic and beautiful. His story is exciting, funny, and human. The history is layered with human stories on top of quirky facts (like the incidental history of chai and samosas) couched in the big geopolitical picture.  He uses a variety of pidgin dialects without providing (as he did in Sea) a glossary, but it takes no time at all for the reader to become fluent. Even at 500+ pages, the read never feels overwhelming or over-long. Every word has its place.

Maybe Ghosh doesn’t need my little recommendation, being as he already has had about every possible positive endorsement a writer can hope for in his career.  But I loved this book so much and it pains me to see it passed over on this year’s Best Of lists (so far) in favour of other books which don’t even seem to come 100% recommended by their recommenders.  I won’t qualify my praise at all: this book is excellent. Read it. And read Sea of Poppies while you’re at it. You are missing a real feast!

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