River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

Reviewed by Chandrahas Choudhury in the New York Times:

09CHOUDRY-popupNo writer in modern India has held a novelistic lamp to the subcontinent’s densely thicketed past as vividly and acutely as Amitav Ghosh. Since the publication of “The Circle of Reason,” in the mid-1980s, Ghosh’s work has been animated by its inventive collages and connections. “River of Smoke,” the second volume of his ambitious Ibis trilogy, is the work of a writer with a historical awareness and an appetite for polyphony that are equal to the immense demands of the material he seeks to illuminate.

Like its predecessor, “Sea of Poppies,” this new novel fashions narrative pleasures from narcotic ones, exploring the fizzing currents of language, politics, trade and culture that swept through the vast opium network operated by the British East India Company in the 19th century. “Sea of Poppies” was set almost entirely in the cities, harbors and plains of India, the source of the poppies from which the opium was made. “River of Smoke” takes the action forward to the same opium’s destination, the Chinese trading outpost of Canton.

Although convincing in its reconstruction of early-19th-­century India and revelatory in its linguistic ventriloquism, “Sea of Poppies” often labored under its own weight. Improbable plot turns too often tied its narrative threads together; its pastiches too frequently lapsed into stretches of creaking comedy. Superficially less dramatic, “River of Smoke” is much more evenly written and engaging.

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