Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 19, 2015

Flood of Fire, by Amitav Ghosh #BookReview

Flood of FireIsn’t it just wonderful when you find a book that you simply can’t put down!  Many assorted duties have been neglected in the two days it took me to romp through the third and final book in Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, Flood of Fire. My only disappointment is that there are no more to come…

It isn’t necessary to first read Sea of Poppies (see my review) or River of Smoke (see my review), but if you like grand storytelling, well, why wouldn’t you want to read them all?  If you are monolingual, it might perhaps take you a little while to get used to some of the patois…

Annabel and Mrs Burnham left later that day and for a fortnight afterwards the Burnham mansion was silent and dark.  Then suddenly the lights went on again and Zachary knew that Mrs Burnham had returned.  A week later there was an explosion of activity around the house; khidmatgars, chokras, malis and ghaskatas went swarming over the grounds, stringing up lanterns and putting out chairs.  One of the chokras told Zachary that a big burra-khana was to be held at the house to celebrate the Beebee’s birthday.   (p.58)

… but Ghosh makes it easy enough to deduce that those khidmatgars, chokras, malis and ghaskatas are servants and a burra-khana is a party – and by the time you come to Book 2 it will seem quite normal.  (As some of it was, for me: some of the odd borrowings in my family’s lexicon (e.g. ‘Let’s have a dekko’ / Let’s have a look) must have derived from Hindi – my grandfather and great aunt served in India before WW1.)

These books are such fun, even though Ghosh raises serious issues in all three novels…

Flood of Fire begins with the fallout of the financial disaster than befell the Indian merchant Bahram when the Chinese cracked down on the opium trade.  His widow Shireen is bankrupt, but she knows there’s something odd about the way he died.  It’s not easy for her to leave the purdah that has always confined her, but Shireen is a splendid character – she gets a wardrobe of western clothes ready and sets off for Canton to restore her husband’s reputation and claim her share of the compensation that the opium merchants are demanding from the Chinese government.  They intend to get it too.  As I suggested in my review of River of Smoke, the British merchants are determined to impose their version of Free Trade on China, and for strategic reasons, it suits the British government to go to war over it.  (They end up with Hong Kong, as we all know).

Among the soldiers that gets caught up in this morally bankrupt conflict is Kesri, a sepoy in colonial India.  In ensuing chapters we learn his back story, and how he is connected to one of the survivors of the Ibis disaster off the coast of Mauritius.  (Yes, I am being evasive about some of the characters – this is because it takes a pleasurable while for Ghosh to reveal which ones survived the Ibis – and it would spoil the story if I so much as mention their names.) Kesri is the moral compass of the novel: bewitched by the romance of the military life, he disobeys his father and joins up, only to find that he has to deal with the enemy within as well as the opposing forces.  There is the racial chasm between the British troops and the sepoys, with differential treatment in pay, accommodation and status, exemplified over and over again in the overt disdain that marked every interaction.  But there is also the sometimes brutal jealousy of the other sepoys, which always has the potential to wreck Kesri’s military career.  The omniscient narrator tells this story from his point-of-view, revealing his inner torments about where his loyalties lie – but time and again we see him show valour and wisdom in his interactions with lesser men, as well as on the battlefield.

A career soldier, Kesri is troubled by the harsh punishments meted out in the name of discipline, and he is appalled by the senseless slaughter of a vanquished enemy that refuses to surrender.  He is uneasy about his role in fighting wars that have nothing to do with the interests of India.  But Kesri has sworn allegiance to Queen Victoria, and he is a man of his word.  He consoles himself by remembering the ancient Indian epics:

A tremor went through Kesri as he thought of the part that he himself had played in what was unfolding around him now:  deep within, he knew that his actions would have to be answered for in many lives yet to come.  To combat the dread in his heart, he reminded himself of the heroes of the Mahabharata who had fought, against their own inclination, on the side of evil, only because it was their duty: because not to fight would have brought dishonour.  He reminded himself of Dronacharya battling Arjuna, the pupil he loved more than his own son; he thought of Bhisma Pitamaha, most righteous of men, committing himself to an unjust cause; he thought of King Shalya, making war upon his own sister’s sons, only because of a few words, unmindfully spoken, had bound him to his fate.  It was in just that way, Kesri told himself, that he too had sworn an oath to the British and could not now go back on his word without dishonour.  (p.505)

He is also loyal to an officer who becomes his friend, a troubled man who lost the love of his life because he was of the wrong class.

Less honourable is Zachary Reid.  Each chapter weaves together the fortunes of the survivors of the storm that hit the Ibis at the end of River of Smoke, and as it slowly dawns on the reader that this handsome, charming character is about as contemptible as it’s possible to be, his catalogue of betrayals grows.  (I listed half a page of them in my reading journal).  Ghosh is too good a writer to paint characters in black and white, however, and what we see in Reid is that while pride and ambition have made him venal, he is a product of the economy in which he thrives.  What have you become? he is asked and his reply is:

‘You wanted me to become a man of the times, did you not?  And that is what I am now; I am a man who wants more and more and more; a man who does not know the meaning of “enough”.  Anyone who tries to thwart my desires is the enemy of my liberty and must expect to be treated as such.’ (p.582)

Yes indeed, it’s just not possible to read this novel set in 1839-1841, and not notice resonances with contemporary economics…

Ghosh makes it clear that the British acted with their usual cynical self-interest, and they have their share of incompetents and villains, but it’s not heavy-handed and he doesn’t absolve the Chinese for their own part in their downfall.  The Emperor in faraway Beijing is divorced from reality, and pays more attention to the venal advice of his hangers-on than he does to the hapless governors-general of Canton.  Any effort to negotiate a settlement to avoid the slaughter of a war the Chinese could not win was stymied by the refusal of the Emperor to countenance defeat.  (Not unlike Japan in WW2, or Hitler.  Or any number of other monsters playing with the lives of their own people.)

Will there be a Book 4?  There are hints in the Epilogue …

There are reviews all over the place, but I liked this one at the Financial Times.

Update: Janine at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip has reviewed it too, bringing an historian’s perspective to the reading.

Author: Amitav Ghosh
Title: Flood of Fire
Publisher: John Murray (an imprint of Hachette), 2015
ISBN: 9780719569012
Review copy courtesy of Hachette

Availability

Fishpond: Flood of Fire


Responses

  1. Oh I had to skim your post, Lisa, because Flood of Fire is very (!) high on my TBR list – next, maybe. I’ve read the prior 2 and loved them – been looking forward to this.

    • Yay, you are going to love it!

  2. I went through an Indian lit phase about 15 yrs ago, but somehow missed out on reading Ghosh at the time. You’ve made this trio sound VERY tempting, although I have no idea how to fit them in to my current reading life. Thanks!

    • I haven’t read enough of Ghosh to know if this is right, but I read somewhere recently that the Ibis trilogy is a complete departure for Ghosh. Obviously a very successful one. The only other one I’ve read is The Glass Palace which I read more than a decade ago and I don’t remember it very well, but I rated it 4 stars at Goodreads so I must have liked it a lot. (LOL I’m a bit mean with my stars.) I would like to read The Hungry Tide, but yes, how to fit in in, is the perennial problem!

  3. I read and loved the first in this trilogy a while back now and the 2nd book has been languishing on my shelves ever since. I obviously need to move it up in rank if there is a third already out! I’m glad you said it’s not necessary to read the other books in the series because I’ve forgotten a lot of the first book.

    • This happens to me all the time, I get left behind and an author brings out a new one before I’ve read the last one. At the moment I’m reading David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and how long ago was that released?

  4. I’m so glad I read this review. For years now I’ve wanted to read the Ibis trilogy but couldn’t commit to buying the books unless I knew a few things about the plot. I just didn’t feel comfortable blind-buying books anymore. At the same time, I’ve had horrible experiences of being spoiled when I researched book reviews online. Your review was wonderful: you made the Ibis trilogy sounds so complex and grand and immersive without going too much into plot details

    . Definitely going up on the “must buy” list. (Eeeek! at my to-be-read pile)

    • Yes, I know what you mean about blind-buying. It doesn’t happen often, but often enough to be disconcerting, that books get published which are not quite worthy of their authors. Sometimes I think it’s pressure to *produce* that affects everyone in the chain, and so a book that isn’t ready – and could perhaps be so much better – gets onto the shelves to disappoint the hapless buyer.
      I was concerned with this one not to spoil anything, and also to give you a taste of the writing because not everyone is happy with his style, but if I have persuaded you to try it, then I am well pleased:)

  5. […] Click here to see my review of the third book in the trilogy, Flood of Fire. […]


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