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Reading Buddies Wrap-Up: “Sea of Poppies” by Amitav Ghosh

Just a quick note: Be sure to vote for your November Reading Buddies pick in the sidebar if you haven’t done so already! I’ll be announcing November’s book next Friday.

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Now, on with the Reading Buddies wrap-up for Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh! It was certainly a long book, and it took me nearly the whole month to get through, but I did end up enjoying it.

Beware: the rest of this post contains spoilers!

We left off last time about midway through the book, so I’ll pick up with the second half. The various characters, already drawing slowly together, finally all arrived in one place and were thrown together aboard the Ibis.

I loved the way Ghosh brought all the stories together. I thought it was so cool how we got to see the process of preparing and boarding the ship from different perspectives: an officer (Zachary), a migrant (Deeti), a stowaway (Paulette), a crewman (Jodu), a prisoner (Neel), a company representative (Baboo Nob Kissin)…did I miss anyone?? Having those various perspectives on the same events gave Ghosh amazing flexibility. And since we already knew everyone by the time the characters all meet on the ship, there was no background information to stand in the way of the story. It took a lot of pages to get to that point, but I’m thinking it was worth it.

Sea of Poppies by Amitav GhoshAs several readers have pointed out, the language was, at times, a bit of work, since Ghosh tossed in copious amounts of foreign terms without ever really defining them. I did think this became a little easier as I got used to Ghosh’s vocabulary — words started at least looking familiar and so slowing me down less — but I never really felt totally comfortable. Do you think his heavy reliance on foreign terms added to the story, or did it just make the novel harder to read?

I was absolutely not expecting Sea of Poppies to end the way it did. As the number of unread pages dwindled and the sea voyage wore on, I realized we wouldn’t get to see the ship’s destination in this first installment of the story. I’m not sure I would call it a cliffhanger, since Ghosh gave us some foreshadowing that things would work out, like when he mentioned earlier the generations that would descend from Kalua. But goodness, what a place to leave off! I especially loved the final paragraph, where the story came full circle. I just about got chills.

There are a couple of things I’d noted down to look up, and I thought I’d share my findings with you. The first is the phrase “under weigh,” which turned up a few times in Sea of Poppies in connection with ships. When I read it the first time, I was struck by how much it sounds like “underway” and made a note to investigate further. Turns out the two phrases mean the same thing. Here are a few excerpts from Phrases.org tracing the phrase’s origins:

“‘Way’ doesn’t mean here road or route but has the specifically nautical meaning of ‘the forward progress of a ship though the water’, or the wake that the ship leaves behind. Way has been used like that since at least the 17th century.”

“‘[U]nder’ was originally ‘on the’…. ‘On the way’ migrated to ‘underway’, probably due to the influence of the Dutch word ‘onderweg’, which translates into English as ‘underway’ but to 17th century sailors must have sounded more like ‘on the way’.”

“The term ‘weigh anchor’, and the fact that when ships are loaded with cargo and ready to sail they are weighed down, has led to the phrase being written as ‘under weigh’.”

Kind of interesting, no? I love discovering how idioms and phrases came into being, so this was a fun discovery for me.

Second, I was very curious about what a bore wave was after reading the scene where Jodu and Zachary end up riding out one such wave in the river. According to Wikipedia, a bore is “a tidal phenomenon in which the leading edge of the incoming tide forms a wave (or waves) of water that travel up a river or narrow bay against the direction of the river or bay’s current.” They are apparently rather turbulent and produce a rumbling sound. I couldn’t find a concise video of a bore wave, but here’s my favorite of the ones I found:

I had no idea these existed. Have you ever experienced one?

Well, now that we’ve reached the end, I suppose the final judge of how well you liked Sea of Poppies is: will you be picking up River of Smoke? I actually wasn’t planning to until I finished Sea of Poppies, but now I’d really like to. What about you?

Other readers’ thoughts:

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  • http://perduedansleslivres.blogspot.com virginie

    I just read the last lines a few hours ago! I am glad I stuck to my reading, despite the difficulties about the language, as I finally did enjoy the book very much. It took me a full three weeks to read it, which is very unusual for me as I do not normally spend so much time on just one book. The characters are really interesting. I loved the description of the life on board of the Ibis, but was often struck by the violence and brutality of the relationships between some of the officers and the members of the crew.
    I feel tempted to read the River of Smoke, as I really want to follow that trip to its destination and get to know what happened to Deeti, Jodu and Kalua and the others, but I guess I’ll wait for the French translation to be published :)
    I didn’t know anything about the bore wave phenomenon and the video you included is very impressive.

    • Erin

      This one too me much longer than books usually do as well. I think it was a combination of its length and its language. I didn’t feel like I could speed through it. I agree with you about the violence — throughout the book, actually, but especially on board the Ibis. I felt like Ghosh did a really good job building up a world around his story, and every time I opened the book it was like I was back in India.

      Ha, I don’t blame you for wanting a French translation! I’ll be interested to hear if it’s easier going for you. Knowing Ghosh’s writing, there will still be plenty of foreign terms :-) I’m glad you stuck with this one and ended up enjoying it!

  • http://www.ragingbibliomania.net/ zibilee

    I have wanted to read this book for such a long time, but haven’t ever gotten around to it. Your discussion of it has sort of made me realize that I need to make time for this one, as it sounds wonderful. I don’t mind it too much when there are so many foreign terms in the narrative, so that probably wouldn’t bother me too much, but the fact that this is the first in a series is a little daunting to me!

    • Erin

      That’s how I was, til Reading Buddies forced me to pick it up! I’m feeling a bit daunted by how long the next two books surely are, but if they’re like the first one, I know they’ll be quite good, so I’ll probably tackle them at some point! I hope you get to enjoy this one eventually :-)

  • http://www.reviewsbylola.wordpress.com Stephanie

    I agree that this was a more difficult book. I definitely want to read the next one, although it has been two years since I read Sea of Poppies and I wish I remembered more of it.

    • Erin

      I’m thinking maybe I should clear some time now to read River of Smoke so I don’t get too far away from Sea of Poppies before I pick up the story again! I wonder how closely one follows the other.

  • http://www.caribousmom.com Wendy

    Sorry I did not get a chance to join your discussion – I read this book two years ago and loved it (hope you don’t mind that I linked up to my review even though I wasn’t involved in the discussion!). I have been waiting two years for the second book and cannot wait to read it! I actually loved the language in this book – at first it was odd, but eventually, it felt exactly right to me. Ghosh is an amazing writer.

    • Erin

      That’s ok! You can drop by for any of these Reading Buddies posts and just jump in. I don’t mind you linking up at all! I like seeing what others have thought about the book under discussion, even if we didn’t read it at the same time. I definitely got used to the language. I’m curious to see how I’ll feel picking up the next volume, as I often find I do better with a different style once I’ve been exposed to it once (Jose Saramago is a prime example!).

  • http://homeofaimala.blogspot.com/ Amy

    I haven’t reviewed Sea of Poppies yet as I just finished it this morning but I want to review it next week.

    Thank you for the video of the bore wave, Erin. That’s pretty much what I pictured except more violent and turbulent based on how it was described in the book.

    I felt like you did, that the way Ghosh brought all of the characters together on the ship was terrific. I think over all I liked the last section best although the were parts of the other sections that I liked quite a bit.

    I think the language of Doughty, Crowle, Serang Ali and others hampered the reading of the story a bit because it was difficult to decipher the language they spoke. So many times I wished for a glossary! I got used to it by the last section and recognized words and also had a general idea of what the characters were saying but my reading was slowed down and the flow of the story was definitely interrupted.

    Ghosh’s creativity astounds me and he’s a master storyteller and fantastic writer. There were many characters and storylines but I don’t think Ghosh left any threads hanging…or, if he did, I didn’t catch it.

    The ending was amazing, so well done. I wouldn’t call it a cliffhanger either, but it left me with questions and anxious to know what happens, how people like Deeti and Kalua get back together and if Paulette meets up with Zachary again. So, I guess I’m going to read River of Smoke!

    I am interested to know what happened with the Burnham’s and the judge when Paulette disappears. I think the Burnhams will probably show up in River of Smoke.
    And one of the things that I found difficult or disheartening but which I think was a realistic portrayal, is how unkind or even nasty the men on the ship are to each other…Crowle, the subedars etc. and how terribly the convicts were treated, the girmitiyas, Kalua by so many people and even Deeti by her inlaws. But that’s my subjective feeling.

    You chose a great book for this month, Erin! Thank you! Maybe River of Smoke will be a Reading Buddies pick one month?!

    • Erin

      Definitely stop back and link up your review, Amy!

      You are so right — there were no dangling threads were there? And I don’t feel like any story line was gratuitous, even though there were so many. I’m impressed he kept them all going without letting any of them feel like a weak link. And that ending, with Zachary recognizing Deeti — ooh! I want to know where the story goes from here, too. Good call with the Burnhams. I forgot about them in all the activity. Since Ghosh doesn’t seem to do loose ends, I bet they will show up later.

      I agree with you too about the treatment of one man by another. I noticed it from the beginning, when we first met Deeti, and it happened throughout the story. Whether physically or emotionally or mentally, it always seemed like one character (major or minor) was always being hurt by another (again, major or minor). It’s definitely a hard world that seems to have little sympathy. Perhaps that’s why we get so attached to the characters that seem to show kindness to one another?

      As for River of Smoke, I hesitate to declare it an official Reading Buddies book in case people haven’t read Sea of Poppies and so can’t join in. But I would totally be up for doing an informal read. Let me know if you’re interested!

  • http://jennysbooks.wordpress.com Jenny

    I’ve just started reading River of Smoke this weekend, and I’m liking it a lot! I was hoping it would have more togetherness among the characters than it has had so far. But it’s brilliant though! I’m loving spending more time with the characters — Pauline especially, I love Pauline.

    • Erin

      Ooh! Yours is the first report I’ve heard. I’m thinking about just reading it, sooner rather than later. It’s just so long! I’m glad some of the characters are the same. I’d really like to see where they end up!

  • http://www.taiwaneastcoaster.blogspot.com/ Ryan

    Whoops. I linked my blog by accident. I read Sea of Poppies last year but apparently I didn’t blog about it. Swore I did. I even remember what I wrote. Something like: If you are set on writing a trilogy, you have to make sure book one is engaging enough to make the reader WANT to read book two. I found that Ghosh spent a lot of the book puttering around and didn’t get really make the book interesting until the final third. That’s far too late, in my opinion.

    I was unaware that the second book is now available. I’ll have to put it on my list of things to read, although grudgingly.

    • Erin

      No worries, thanks for letting me know and weighing in! Perhaps your blog ate that particular post? I definitely had moments where I felt the same way. It wasn’t until the last 75 pages I thought the story really had forward momentum. Though, in their own way, the earlier parts were interesting, I thought, just not especially gripping. River of Smoke just came out in the US in the past week or two, I think. If it’s going to start off at a quicker pace, I definitely think I’ll enjoy it more.

  • http://www.bostonbibliophile.com Marie

    i love all the extra research you did here, and i’m so glad you enjoyed the book and want to read river of smoke. i think you’ll really enjoy it and can’t wait to hear what you think!

    • Erin

      I’m trying to resist ordering River of Smoke from the library right now — I won’t have time to get through it yet, but I’d love to read it! Whenever something interesting pops up in a Reading Buddies book, I like to look into it. I’m glad you enjoyed the things that came up in this one!

  • http://bibliophilebythesea.blogspot.com/ Diane@BibliophileBytheSea

    I should have read this one with all of you. It’s been on my shelf too long:(

    • Erin

      It’s great, Diane, I hope you get to pick it up at some point! It had been on my shelf for quite a while before I finally got to it. At least books are patient :-)

  • niti

    hi there, can someone please help me with the way the book has ended. zachary sees deeti along with the others and on seeing her grey piercing eyes feels like he may have seen/met her somewhere else. i cant seem to break that down as an ending, will appreciate your understanding of it.

  • Trishala

    Hey there!
    I’ve only just finished reading the book and thought I’d look up some reviews to know what everyone else thought if it.
    I for one absolutely adored the book. Being from India I especially related to the slangs, customs and historical links. The end of this book, however, brings me to one huge question – where did Zachary meet Deeti first?! I’ve been rattling my memory and fail to remember any encounter between them

    • Archana Marshall

      Me too I have the same question. Does he see her when Jodu ferries them all in ? I went back there but couldn’t find it.
      It is a great story. How violent man can be .. love the way women take control of their lives. Please remind me of why deeri’s eyes are familiar to Zackery