Review: River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

As a girl in a village where murals are painted on every surface, Deeti’s specialty is to paint the ordinary mortals who frolic around the feet of the deities.  She marries and discovers painting is forbidden in her husband’s village.  Then, one day during a storm, she stumbles upon a cave within a spur of limestone, and this becomes both her canvas and her shrine.  For the rest of her life, the unlettered Deeti paints stories, events, adventures on the cave walls—the history of everyone and everything she knows.

With this motif, Amitav Ghosh sets the backdrop for River of Smoke, a polyphonic history of the 19th century and of the Opium Wars in particular.  From Deeti’s cave on the island of Mauritius, Ghosh sails to the markets of Singapore, lands in the warren of opium dens in Canton, battles oceans to encounter Napoleon in exile on St Helena.  Crisscrossing continents and generations, he charts the ordinary lives of indentured servants, merchants, orphans, imperialists, smugglers, painters, and an assortment of others.

River of Smoke the second in the Ibis Trilogy, the first of which is the bestselling Sea of Poppies.  Even on its own, the novel is an epic mural breathtaking in ambition.  With so many characters, dialects, and cultures, it’s occasionally heavy-going but well-worth the extra effort.  Ghosh stands out as one of the masters of the contemporary novel, and River of Smoke is an astonishing record of a century of imperialism and greed.

River of Smoke  

Amitav Ghosh  

John Murray  


Review first published in The Courier-Mail in 2011.




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