Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Book Review: River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

I spent a lot of time on this book.  I got it from the library the same time I got the last book I read, Crumbtown, and ended up having to renew it and then three weeks later cram in the last 150 pages to avoid a late fee.  That last day was quite nice, though.  I ought to spend five or six hour chunks reading more often.  Good for the mind, good for the soul.

This is a roundabout, meandering way of explaning that this book is BIG.  In many ways.  Big in ambition, big in scope, big in number of pages; it comes with a substantial heft and would make a satisfactory projectile.  It aims to cover the lives of around a dozen characters while accurately representing a historical period little known by its audience all while keeping the reader engaged.  Does it succeed at all this?  Commence the review.

Summarizing the plot is a challenge because there is so much going on.  At its heart this is the tale of a trade dispute.  It takes place in 1838 Canton (now Ghangzou), the heart of the opium trade.  After years of unbalanced trade and societal issues the Chinese Emperor is trying to end once and for all the illegal opium trade in China.  The British and Indian merchants who benefit from the trade fight against this and a war of words and politics ensue.  Which sounds terribly boring but it's such a small portion of what is actually happening in the book.  Really we are intimately following the lives of the myriad foreigners living in Canton.  Some of them are merchants, yes, but most are artists and botanists and chefs and laborers, each on his or her own quest to take what China will give.

Each character is distinct in motivation and voice.  Part of this is because Ghosh pays particular attention to language.  Whenever possible he incorporates actual instances of Chinese or Bengali or the pidgin language that merchants developed for transactions between speakers of different languages.  This is offered with as translation as possible; the reader is expected to rely on context clues to decipher what is being said.  But even beyond which language is used, the way that it's being used differentiates each character.  You could go through each section having blacked out all the names and still know who is speaking.  It makes the balancing act of following a whole slew of characters much easier.

Reading this book I felt like I was a welcome intruder in a fully-formed and self-sustaining world, just watching people go about their business.  Ghosh gives unbelievably explicit detail about the smallest thing.  A character walks on a ship and we hear endless descriptions about the ship's floorboards and woodwork.  There's ship that is used specifically for transporting new plants from China to England and in one of the most fascinating passages of the book Ghosh devotes a few pages to the crew's practice of composting everything they eat at Sea.  I can't even fathom the amount of research that went into this book, but it pays off.  Everything is so clear; you form a picture in your mind and it stays with you.

And this is the beauty of the reading experience.  As a reader you just drift through this world, from character to character, concern to concern.  I don't want to call it directionless because that sounds negative.  Maybe free-flowing.  When I was getting close to the day I had to return it to the library but only found myself halfway through I didn't fret at all.  I figured I'd just inhabit this world as long as I could and then just move somewhere else.  I was actually a little disappointed when, about two thirds of the way in, the plot took off.  I understand the story has to go somewhere but I never wanted it to.  Still I was so enthralled I powered through to the end and I have no regrets.

I discussed this with a friend who read Ghosh's last book and hated it, seemingly for the same reason for I loved it.  I can understand, too.  This is a certain type of book for a certain type of person.  Maybe you don't want to hear about what different types of boats look like.  Maybe when language is given in the pidgin language with minimal translation you can frustrated.  If you are the type of person that needs to understand exactly what is happening in a book then this is the sort of book you'll have to read sitting by your computer, tuned in to a dictionary and Wikipedia at the same time.  But if you're looking for an atmosphere to float through and observe, pick this up and enjoy the ride.

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