2008, 468 p.
This book is part of a projected trilogy and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2008. It did not win, and perhaps it’s a work best appreciated once the other volumes appear. There are hints throughout the book that there is an endpoint in sight for the author, even if we don’t as yet know how we’re going to get there. The author foreshadows that people and events will one day be represented in a shrine, but we don’t know where this shrine will be, or when it will be created.
The story line unspools slowly, almost as if the plot itself is caught in a sticky opium haze. Within the 468 pages we have the arrival of a boat, its provisioning and slow movement down the river towards the open sea, then its journey to Mauritius, and the story closes before landfall is made. The impetus of the book is the gathering together of the cast of main characters- a widow who escapes suttee, a bankrupt rajah, a mulatto American sailor, a French woman under the care of a wealthy English opium-trader- and the chain of circumstance that brings them to this boat. It was in this slow accumulation of characters that I was most aware of the trilogy-nature of the book- not unlike Lord of the Rings perhaps, although I hope that the book doesn’t take as long to divest itself of all these characters as that particular trilogy did! In less assured and more impatient hands, this would have been rushed but in this book I found myself introduced to each character and drawn into his or her story before moving onto the next one. Each character was clearly established in my mind, so that it was a case of merely picking up interest when I met them again, rather than having to flip back to see “Now, who’s this again?”. There is no cast of characters, and to Ghosh’s credit, I didn’t feel that I needed one.
Beyond the literary level, the book is an explication of British colonialism and the networks between different ports of Empire across the globe. Set specifically in time- March 1838- the book captures well the interconnectedness of British colonialism. The Indians provide the opium that is forced onto the Chinese in order to prevent a currency imbalance in return for Chinese goods. Slave ships are reconfigured to ship indentured Indian labour to Mauritius to exploit the sugar industry which in turn is fed into the colonial economy. We have characters who straddle cultures: the French Paulette drawn into the British colonial family despite her upbringing by an Indian foster-mother, and Zachary Reid, the son of an American slave mother and white father.
The language of the novel draws on a pidgin-English, a “jolly hockey-sticks” bombast amongst the English characters and Indian vernacular. Ghosh makes no concessions here. The dialects are part of the text, with no glossary, no semantic crutches, and as a reader you just have to deal with them and move on (dare I say “Move Forward”?). And move on I did, and I look forward to reading the next installment.