Oh Sea of Poppies I am smitten and my temporary fall out with Amitav Ghosh over The Glass Palace now a blurred and insignificant memory. I'm trying to recall where The Glass Palace went wrong for me, it was years ago and I know it was beyond 200 pages.It might have all been down to a mention of one vintage car too many. Suddenly, and doubtless misguidedly I felt the invasion of an authorial passion into a work of fiction, the whole book rocked on its foundations and went churlishly back onto the shelf.
So I hadn't paid too much attention to Sea of Poppies except to drool over the cover of course, but not enough to persuade me to read.
Booker longlisting changed all that and am I so delighted it has.
Just occasionally a book comes along that swells your heart indescribably as you read, you can't bear to put it down and you can't wait to pick it up again, carry it everywhere in case some reading time crops up unexpectedly, it doesn't even matter if the sun don't shine you get that feel-good sensation no matter what. When that happens you want to bottle it.
This is a book that made me groggy with pure storytelling, a tale told good and proper and entirely different in nature to The Northern Clemency which I had to put down every so often to ponder.
This is big saga stuff and Amitav Ghosh is in it for the long haul with this the first of a trilogy, so the luxury of expansive acres of space at the tip of his pen to set out his stall and he does it magnificently. Nor does he waste or lose control of the boundaries of that space, warping up the loom with a tightly woven cast list of solid characters all heading along the various threads that you know will lead them aboard the ex-slave ship, the 'blackbirder' Ibis and sailing to a new and uncertain life in Mauritius as indentured labourers. It's clear who will be the main players but plenty of interesting extras with the potential to blossom.
The historical backdrop is a fascinating one,1850s India, the poppy fields of the Ganges, the opium trade, the supremacy and folly of white colonial rule clashing head on with the culture of caste and the impending Opium Wars with China, all pouring into a seamless blend of fact and fiction as Amitav Ghosh launches this trilogy.
The richness and innate mystery of language prevails with silky smooth writing, and early perseverance paid dividends, because once I'd grown accustomed to the 'pijjin' dialect I was up and away with the book. Plenty of words I didn't understand but amazing how quickly you start to 'translate', because English derivatives are there if you look hard enough and I was soon making sense of meaning though I'm not sure if I was supposed to extend that to the names.
Does Amitav Ghosh mean me to smile over...well...er... Nob Kissin Baboo? I'm sorry if I wasn't supposed to but I just couldn't help it and of course the name suits the character entirely.
Thankfully no glossary which always annoys, let the words mean what they mean and let me figure out the rest.The skill of the writer is making sure that I can within the context of the narrative and in my view Amitav Ghosh succeeded, I was rarely confused though often working hard at my guesses.
Sadly this one may be missed by anyone who says they don't read Booker listed books and there's a tragedy, because I for one will be standing right by the press waiting for the ink to dry on the second in the trilogy. If Amitav Ghosh can keep up this standard throughout there's a classic in the making here.
Oh yes, and lest I've left you in any doubt, Sea of Poppies is on my Booker shortlist which can only mean one thing, publishers John Murray have a copy ready and waiting for a lucky winner in the next prize draw. Names in comments and Raja Rocky, who is busy stripping oakum in the chokey and loving it, and his new best friend Mrs Glosser will oblige with a name tomorrow evening.