The family had grown accustomed to the money he sent home; and in different ways they had all come to relish the prestige of being closely related to a man who wore the uniform of a power that was increasingly feared and respected. What was more, by the time his leave drew to an end Kesri could tell that his family – all except Deeti – were tiring of having him at home. He understood that the gap left by his departure from home had been filled by the continuing flow of their lives; his return, although welcome at the start, had now begun to disrupt the new currents.
I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time. It’s been sitting on my shelf for a while, so I finally picked it up and started reading.
Then I put it down.
And argued with myself.
I can’t remember everyone and everything from the first two books. The Burnhams, Zachary Reid, Ah Neel, Baboo Nob Kissin! I remember the names, but not what had happened.
As the threads start, Zachary Reid back at the Burnhams, Shireen learning about the death of her husband and the return of Zadig Bey, Ah Neel’s new life with the Chinese, and Kesri Singh’s life in the army, the names washed over me and away again. I knew them, Bhyro Singh, he was killed on the Ibis apparently, think I remember that. I looked back at my reviews. My review for Sea of Poppies was pitiful, River of Smoke was a bit better, but not enough to fill in the gaps.
Should I carry on reading, or go back and re-read the other two first?
In the end I continued, I had sunk into enough of Ghosh’s delicious prose to not want to resurface.
Once again as the story shifts between China and the Sub-continent Ghosh paints a lush picture with words, half of which make no sense to me but I still love reading. From Army life for Kesri, to Shireen’s entrance to widowhood and Ah Neel’s life in secretive China, revealed in journal entries, as if, like the British, we are not allowed to venture into Chinese territory.
Here comes a bit of a spoiler. What I don’t remember from the first books is the sense of inevitability that seemed to be in Flood of Fire. While reminiscing the back story of Captain Mee, I wondered if his passionate love was in fact Mrs Burnham. While reminiscing later she reveals it was, and their paths are then set to meet in China. While the outcome could go any which way, I still don’t remember the signposts being so clear in the previous two. But that is a minor niggle. As I progressed still more names came out of the mist, Serang Ali, Freddie Lee, Kuar that were all interrelated, all entwined to the Ibis, a constant yet silent character in the background of the whole series.
All paths lead to Canton and Hong Kong in this final instalment. As the Chinese try to end their addiction to opium the English merchants are whining about their loss of money and sure enough England brings it’s navy to the fore to force the Chinese to resume trading. The characters on the sub continent are slowly drawn across as the English start offensive and the characters are again intertwined. At one point Paulette and Freddie recognise Kuar during a military display, which was a nice touch, as the characters flow around one another but do not always connect. At various points the temptation of opium is always there, and by this time you are hoping the characters stay away from it, knowing the impact it has on the lives of those who taste it.
It’s difficult to comment much on the story, given how I have forgotten the previous two books. I didn’t like Zachary by the end of the book, although I imagine at that time there were many like him. His transformation throughout the series is perhaps most truthful, which is a shame, he feels no remorse for the outcome of his actions, and seemingly comes out of it much richer. Of course, Baboo Nob Kissin was always a joy to read, although his role in this was much reduced. Kesri seems the moral mast of the novel, whether the honest soldier from the subcontinent was a deliberate juxtaposition to the greed driven english merchants or just how the character developed only Ghosh can answer.
It is Ghosh’s attention to detail, vibrant description of protocol and every day life that makes this series a geniune pleasure to read, if he narrated a hundred years like this you would live and enjoy every minute. For my own part, as much as I loved this, I know I would of enjoyed it even more if I had re-read Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke first, but the fact that I still couldn’t put it down after starting is it’s own compliment to Ghosh.
As the Ibis steals out of Hong Kong at the end, onto it’s next adventure, you wish you were stowed away on board to live it as you have lived this trilogy.
The days went by in a whirl of revelry with words Gon Hai Fatt Choy! ringing in one’s ears wherever one went. Sometimes I celebrated with Compton and his family, sometimes with Asha-didi, Baburao and their children and grandchildren, on the houseboat. Every day Mithu would bring me auspicious delicacies from the kitchen: long, long noodles, never to be snipped for fear of cutting short one’s life; golden tangerines with leaves attached; fried rolls to invoke ingots of gold. By the end of it, I confess, I was quite worn out: it was a relief to set off as usual today, for a quiet day’s work.