Ghosh's Sea of Poppies boasts a varied collection of characters to love and hate, and provides wonderfully detailed descriptions of opium production, the perils of 19th-century seafaring, and life in 1830s Calcutta. It is utterly involving and piles on the tension until the very last page, which leaves the reader cast adrift along with some of the characters.
At the heart of this epic saga, set just before the Opium Wars, is an old slaving-ship, The Ibis. Its destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean, its crew a motley array of sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts. In a time of colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a truly diverse cast of Indians and Westerners, from a bankrupt Raja to a widowed villager, from an evangelical English opium trader to a mulatto American freedman. As their old family ties are washed away they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais or ship-brothers.
With this much incident, Sea of Poppies is bound to feel contrived at times. Its humour is sometimes wincingly broad, while its characters, who leap from frying pan to fire and back in a blur of drama, test belief. But Ghosh spins a fine story with a quite irresistible flow, breathing exuberant life into a class- and caste-bound India of scoundrels, hypocrites and heroes. It's an absorbing vision, in which stifling tradition and radical change sit, often uncomfortably, in the same boat. The vast sweep of this historical adventure spans the lush poppy fields of the Ganges, the rolling high seas, and the exotic backstreets of China. But it is the panorama of characters, which makes Sea of Poppies so breathtakingly alive - a masterpiece from one of the world's finest novelists.