cover image River of Smoke

River of Smoke

Amitav Ghosh. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (528p) ISBN 978-0-374-17423-1

Find a story line—there are a number of them—in the second installment of Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy (after the Booker Prize–shortlisted Sea of Poppies) and hang on for dear life or risk being lost at sea in this tour of mid 19th-century south Asia. This crowded novel is in turn confusing and exhilarating, crammed with chaotic period detail and pidgin languages. Three ships barely survive an Indian Ocean cyclone in late 1838. Their passengers, each possessing a secret, wash up in Canton (now Guangzhou), China. They are as varied as the region, among them the disgraced young raja, Neel; the Parsi opium trader, Bahram; his bastard Chinese son, Ah Fatt; the Cornish botanist, “Fitcher” Penrose; and the French orphan, Paulette. Neel becomes Bahram’s scribe; Paulette becomes Fitcher’s assistant, even though Canton bars foreign women from entry. The prelude to the opium wars plays out, as the Chinese emperor tries to resist British arguments for free trade to support their role in the drug trade. The fallout from the soured diplomacy creates obstacles to Penrose’s research as well as to the personal fates of Bahram and the others. Ghosh is a highly imaginative, articulate writer. The dialects he mimics are delightful, as are the vignettes and asides that make up the bulk of this book. But a stronger plot would have helped the reader navigate all the sampans and samosas, opium dreams and camellias. (Oct.)