Lisa's Reviews > River of Smoke

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh
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's review
Dec 28, 2015

it was amazing
bookshelves: c21st, india, series
Recommended to Lisa by: Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011
Read from November 07 to 12, 2011

If the rest of the longlisted books are in the same league as Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke, I predict that we will have a tough time choosing a winner for our Shadow Man Asian Literary Award, (see so will the official jury. It’s a great story by a master story-teller, and like the great 19th century novels it is said to resemble, it offers thought-provoking issues to ponder long after the book is finished.

For most of my adult life, de-regulation and free trade has dominated our globalised economics. What Ghosh exposes in River of Smoke is the concept of ‘market failure’ in the globalised economies that occurred under colonisation, that is, he explores what happens
•when business fails to self-regulate,
•when individuals’ self-interest leads to outcomes that are inefficient from a societal point-of-view, and
•when government intervention becomes necessary in order to benefit society but is restricted in what it can achieve because of the actions of other economies.

In the context of the Global Financial Crisis and the emergence of India and China into the modern economy, I can’t think of a more relevant issue for ordinary people to explore – but economics is dry stuff for most of us. Ghosh’s achievement is to turn this issue into a riveting story with unsettling moral issues at its heart.

River of Smoke is an historical epic, second in the trilogy after Sea of Poppies. (See my review. It’s not at all necessary to read the first book, but since it’s such fun, I recommend that you do). River of Smoke begins the story with Deeti, now the matriarch of a large clan which once a year gathers on the island of Mauritius to celebrate its amazing history. Miraculously, having been parted in a spectacular storm, the motley collection of characters from Sea of Poppies survived and were reunited. How they got to Mauritius in their disparate ways is recorded on a series of decorative panels in Deeti’s shrine, and this ‘memory temple’ allows Ghosh to provide their back stories from Sea of Poppies, providing just enough of the plot and characters to make sense, without being a re-telling.

The first panel is Deeti’s. It shows The Parting, when Kalua escaped an unjustified sentence of death by fleeing from the Ibis (a shipload of indentured labour). In the lifeboat with him are the lascars Jodu and Serang Ali and two convicts: Ah Fatt (from China) and Neel (from Bengal). Still aboard the Ibis are Paulette Lambert escaping marriage; Baboo Nob Kissin the overseer; Zachary Reid, the second mate; and Deeti, pregnant with Kalua’s child.

Paulette’s panel depicts her subsequent meeting with the botanist Mr Penrose from the ship Redruth and her rescue from a derelict botanic garden. Deeti asks Neel to draw a panel which records his part in the clan’s saga, and he takes over the story. He draws Seth Bahramji (Ah Fatt’s father) and his ship the Anahita, and so begins the story of the opium trade in Canton, side-by-side, and eventually intersecting with Paulette’s quest to find the elusive Golden Camellia.

To see the rest of my review please visit
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11/07/2011 page 127
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Teresa (new)

Teresa These are the kinds of reviews that get me excited about a particular book. I've had "Sea of Poppies" on my radar, so will read that first. Thanks, Lisa.

Lisa Teresa wrote: "These are the kinds of reviews that get me excited about a particular book. I've had "Sea of Poppies" on my radar, so will read that first. Thanks, Lisa." Thanks, Teresa, wise move to read Sea of Poppies first, that's such a great book too.

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