Amitav Ghosh, Flood of Fire (Straus and Giroux 2015)
When we set up a street library out the front of our house, we intended it as a way to send books from our shelves to good homes. We hadn’t thought about the reverse traffic: this book is like a gift from the benevolent Street Library deity. I loved the first two books in the Ibis trilogy when I read them for the book group some time back. When this third book urned up on our front fence I snuffled it gleefully.
I started reading it on the plane from Sydney to Singapore and finished it after a little more than a week in London, where I’m staying in culturally diverse Walworth (or SE17, to use the locals’ preferred term). That’s an eminently appropriate way to have read it.
The flood of the title is the firepower unleashed on China by the British in what is now known as the First Opium War in the mid nineteenth century, and the vivid account of that assault, including the brutal use made of Indian sepoys, is a salutary reminder of the blood-soaked foundations of England’s prosperity. By happy coincidence I just found this in my twitter feed:
That – or at least the similar events a couple of decades earlier – is the big historical event that provides the context and is front and centre for quite a lot of the narrative, but on the way we follow the adventures of a handful of characters who sailed on the Ibis in the first book, and whose paths continue to cross in unexpected ways. There’s comedy, melodrama, romantic tragedy, a sustained bawdy episode, and always a dizzying interplay of cultures.
I love the way Amitav Ghosh incorporates his research into the narrative. To give just one small instance, after an encounter in which the Chinese forces were routed:
There were corpses everywhere, many of them with black scorch-marks on their tunics. On some, the clothes were still burning: looking more closely, Kesri saw that the fires were caused by a fault in the defenders’ equipment. The powder for their guns was carried not in cartridges, as was the case with the British troops, but in rolled-up paper tubes. These tubes were kept in a powder-pouch that was strapped across the chest. In the course of the fighting the flaps of these pouches would fly open, spilling powder over the soldiers’ tunics; the powder was then set alight by the wicks and flints of their matchlocks.
I don’t suspect for a moment that Ghosh has made this up. Along with the horror, you can sense the novelist’s exhilaration in finding such telling details. I suppose you might read it as an info-dump that distracts from the story, but from my point of view it’s an info-dump that enriches the story with a sense of historical truth.
Similarly, I relish Ghosh’s seemingly endless play with language. I’d call this inventive if it didn’t seem to be the result of arduous research into the many englishes of South, Eastern and South-east Asia. This play is everywhere, but nowhere more joyful than in the pages where a sternly moralistic mem sah’b demonstrates her vast repertoire of synonyms for male masturbation. There a re many sentences elsewhere that, if taken out of context, would be mystifying. I defy you to guess the meaning of, ‘It isn’t decent for a girl to talk to mysteries.’
I had one discontent as I read. Neeti, the character who was in some ways the warm heart of the first book, is no longer a presence. We left her on Mauritius in the second book, and this one is set entirely in India, China and places nearby. But Ghosh is no idiot. My discontent was surprisingly and satisfactorily dealt with in the very last page.