River of Smoke is a curious book. At once vast, full of fascinating detail, engaging; but at the same time the storytelling is flawed and the book’s structure means it sags somewhat as it homes in on the finishing line.
In my (perhaps) former job, a script was defined by character, narrative, (dialogue) and ‘world’. The last being the most relevant here and frequently the hardest for a scriptwriter to master. A novelist has more scope to conjure an unknown world, and Ghosh takes full advantage. He appears to know mid c19th Canton like the back of his hand. His prose leads us through the alleyways, across the Maidan, weaving in and out of the 13 factories. It’s a world as brilliantly realised as Dickens’ London and the depth and breath of the author’s scholarship is never in doubt.
However, his fascination with the intricacies of Canton’s geo-political structure is at the expense of his plot. Ghosh treats his characters with the irreverence of a historian, rather than the reverence of a novelist. Paulette and Penrose, two of the principle characters in the book’s opening section are rudely removed from the plot, left to dawdle about in Hong Kong, offstage. Similarly, Bahram’s son, perhaps the most fascinating character in the book, a true product of Canton’s miscegenation, is introduced and then expunged. There are other figures who flicker into life only to fade out before they are allowed to catch fire. Instead, the author’s focus turns to the historical detail of the lead-up to the opium wars and the actions of the British and US merchants as they strive to resist the Chinese emperor’s will. Whilst Modi’s fate remains of interest, the novel increasingly feels as though it’s marking time before it can knit up its plot, with the day-by-day account of the last days of Canton’s foreign enclave overstated.
Having said which, River of Smoke is still an absorbing read. Ghosh displays an authoritative, over-arching take on the way the modern world has been shaped. Furthermore, he does the European the grand favour of removing their continent from the epicentre, shifting history’s focus further Eastwards, revealing the centuries-old mercantile structures that Europe’s military might took advantage of. Furthermore, River of Smoke contains a vigorous commentary on the nature of the drugs trade. It’s a strong critique of European double standards, one with echoes of today’s world, proving there’s little new under the rising sun.
[Some of the characters named above, I realise after a cursory glance at Wikipedia, feature in the first part of the trilogy, Sea of Poppies. Which might mean that I am being unjust in my criticism. Nevertheless, it still feels to me as though the book lacks balance as a result of the way the author manipulates his characters.]