Day 262: River of Smoke

Cover for River of SmokeA month or two ago I reviewed Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh’s riveting first book in his Ibis trilogy. I have been waiting since then for a good opportunity to post my review of River of Smoke, the second book in the trilogy.

The various passengers and crew members of the Ibis have been separated and now several of them travel toward China on three different ships. Paulette Lambert has been taken on the Redruth by Filcher Penrose, a nursery man for a major botanical garden who hopes to exchange New World plants for those of China. He has hired Paulette, whose father was a renowned botanist, to help take care of the plants.

En route to China with a shipment of opium, the merchant Bahram Moddie, Ah Fat’s father, takes on the disgraced Raja Neel as a munshi, or clerk. Neel travels on the Anahita to Canton in Bahram’s entourage under the name of Anil Kumar.

The Ibis, now containing the owner Benjamin Burnham, is also on the way to Canton.

In Macao, Paulette meets a friend from her childhood, Robin Chinnery, the unacknowledged illegitimate son of a famous painter. As a woman, Paulette is not allowed into Canton. She can only go as far as Hong Kong, then a desolate, almost uninhabited island, where she searches for plants. But Robin goes on to Canton with a mission to try to find out for her and Penrose who painted a picture of a golden camellia and possibly to trade for such a plant.

Robin is in town during the unsettled days before the beginning of the Opium Wars, when the Chinese Emperor is trying to halt the opium trade into China, while the opium traders are purposefully trying to instigate war so that they can call for the intervention of the British navy. Robin’s entertaining letters to Paulette keep us informed about the political debate as he is befriended by Charles King, the only merchant of stature who believes China is in the right.

Bahram Moddie, a well-meaning man who loves Canton on sight, has unfortunately invested his entire fortune in this shipment of opium. He is caught between his conscience and his need to be successful as the Chinese government tries to keep the foreign ships at bay.

As rich in language and storytelling as the first book, this novel is completely engrossing, showing the American and British opium dealers as the venal, hypocritical men they are, with their self-serving arguments about Free Trade and their arrogant disdain for their Chinese hosts. I’m afraid it may be two or three years of waiting before I can read the final book in the trilogy.

4 thoughts on “Day 262: River of Smoke

  1. mostlycinema March 5, 2013 / 2:32 am

    nice review.i felt i was watching the collapse of lehman all over again with the traders in denial of the reality..

  2. Cecilia January 24, 2014 / 7:06 pm

    So glad you loved this book. I put the trilogy on my to-read list last year. Argh…so many books to read…;-)

    • whatmeread January 25, 2014 / 10:47 am

      I just wish he’d finish the last one.

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