Stevie Carroll's Reviews > Gun Island

Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh
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it was amazing
bookshelves: reviewed-elsewhere

Previously reviewed on The Good, The Bad, and The Unread:

In my quest to increase the diversity of my reading, I sometimes pick up literary fiction from established, top-prize-nominated authors. This doesn’t always end well. While I like literary tropes, a lot of fiction acclaimed by high-end critics turns out not to be as good in my opinion as really good genre fiction. Sometimes, however, I’m pleasantly surprised. And sometimes I find a literary work that completely blows me away.

The story starts out innocuously enough. Brooklyn-based rare-book dealer Deen Datta is spending the winter, as he usually does, in Calcutta – the city where he grew up. Having been recently dumped from a long-term relationship, he is introduced to many eligible women of an appropriate maturity, but none catches his interest. As Deen attends one last family celebration before returning to the US, he is introduced to something altogether more intriguing: a new version of the legend on which he based his PhD thesis – and there’s a woman involved there too.

The legend in Bengali folklore tells of a merchant – a gun merchant in this new version – who offends a goddess and sets out on a series of journeys and adventures in an attempt to escape her wrath. Deen has long believed that the version of the legend he knows best dates in part from the seventeenth century and not the fourteenth as others have asserted. Now he has the opportunity to visit a shrine connected to this version that’s still newer to him and make a new friend along the way.

Piyali – Piya – Roy is another Bengali American, who is staying with the aunt of Deen’s friend, and who has been helping administer the charity set up by the old woman many years previously. The older woman knows where the shrine is, and the younger one is able to arrange transport. Deen is reluctant at first – he’s worried about missing his flight – but is soon persuaded to go. Along the way he meets up with a range of characters and discovers carvings on the shrine that seem to confirm the theories he expounded in his thesis. Sadly for Deen, events cut his expedition short, and he returns to the US fired up with his quest for knowledge but with no real evidence with which to further his research.

Brainstorming with an old mentor while at a conference, Deen slowly comes around to agreeing with her suggestion that the gun merchant might have travelled as far as her home city of Venice. He agrees to pay her a visit and there finds himself caught up in the fate of a group of migrants – some from the area he visited when exploring the shrine – and those who wish to help them in the face of strong popular opposition. He also meets Piya again, who is hoping fervently that one of her young friends is on a migrant boat reported to be heading for the Italian coast.

I loved the fact that although this book didn’t have any precise solutions to any of the real world problems it presented – natural disasters, loss of homes, and ecosystems, the displacement of large numbers of people who then wash up in a Europe that’s becoming increasingly unwelcoming towards them – it still managed to set an overall hopeful tone. I also appreciated the hints of magical realism interspersed through the story and the glimpses of different cultures surviving against all-natural and man-made opposition. I definitely want to find time to read the author’s earlier works now.

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Reading Progress

Started Reading
May 27, 2019 – Shelved
May 27, 2019 – Shelved as: reviewed-elsewhere
May 27, 2019 – Finished Reading

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