River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh - review by John Thieme

John Thieme


River of Smoke


John Murray 522pp £20 order from our bookshop

River of Smoke, the second part of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, is mainly set in nineteenth-century Canton and chronicles the events that led up to the First Opium War, along with their effect on a motley range of individuals. Like the first part of the trilogy, the Man Booker-shortlisted Sea of Poppies, the novel is a linguistic tour de force that recreates the idiolects of a vast cast of characters, particularly the Western and ‘Accha’ (Ghosh prefers this term to ‘Indian’ to identify those from the subcontinent in this period) opium merchants who rubbed shoulders in Canton, the melting-pot city that was the sole gateway into China for foreign traders at this time.

The novel is as full of ideas as characters and, like Sea of Poppies, it does a wonderful job of conjuring a world into being through its carefully researched accumulation of detail. Ghosh’s interest in language and etymology is complemented by a welter of information about plants, food

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