Flood of Fire. Amitav Ghosh.

Ghosh, Amitav. Flood of Fire. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 2015. Electronic version retrieved for Kindle. F; 8/15.

I liked this story and there were times when I was really captivated. I pulled the third in a narrative series off the top of the pile here: it is the culmination of the Ibis Trilogy. I haven’t read the other two novels, and although there is some reference back to them, this one stands quite nicely on its own. I discovered it reading the “Books” section of The New Criterion, a firmly right-of-center tract which a good friend with those persuasions gave me a subscription to, and I renewed it when it ran out. Considering the source, I wonder: where does Ghosh stand artistically on the unavoidable political spectrum between right and left? Could he conceivably be a genuine pragmatist brave enough to wish a plague on both their houses? Maybe.

The story is set in the mid-19th century and involves the opium wars between Britain and China. We jump, occasionally with no warning except a paragraph break, among five or six major characters, who all end up in southeastern China as Britain annexes Hong Kong. Zachary Reid is an American sailor skilled in carpentry who does some work in Calcutta for fabulously wealthy Benjamin Burnham, work which includes over a dozen sessions of clandestine sex with Burnham’s wife Catherine.

Meanwhile newly-widowed south Asian Shireen Moddie risks social excommunication by traveling to Canton to try to recover her late husband’s lost opium fortune. Kesrie Singh is a soldier in the Indian portion of the British Army, aide to Captain Neville Mee. Both also travel to Canton as part of the British military campaign, but Mee is moody over, it turns out, having his heart broken by losing Catherine when she married Burnham. Neel Rattan Haldar is an Indian, fluent in Chinese, who is busy helping the Quing Emperor in his losing cause against the British.

It’s a long book, and at times I had trouble keeping track of the characters, especially when, added to the above main plot lines, subplots like Reid’s second love-interest Paulette and deceased Moddie’s second family and opium-addicted son enrich and complicate things. There are fascinating glimpses into the opium trade, its futures market, contemporary military technology, and religious observance.

(PLOT ALERT) Everyone converges in Canton for the uneven battle between technically-sophisticated Britain with its massive and powerful sailing and steam ships, and China with vast manpower superiority but limited technology and experience. Emotional and romantic fireworks explode on the deck of one of the English ships in a New Year’s celebration bringing Catherine into the same room as her former true love, and her more recent lover, Zachary, who is busy pushing his way into partnership with her husband in the fabulously lucrative opium importing business. Catherine and Shireen have a convincing emotional connection the next day (END PLOT ALERT). The battle scenes that follow are hideously realistic:

Now a jet of flame spurted out of the muzzle of the Queen’s enormous sixty-eight-pounder; at the same time that two pivot-guns of the Nemesis began to rattle, shooting canister. These were powerful anti-personnel weapons — cans filled with musket-balls. When fired, the canisters would explode in the barrel, creating hailstorms of bullets.

When he had pulled out his dripping sword, Kesri saw that the man’s eyes were still open. For the few seconds of life that remained to him, the man fixed his gaze on Kesri. His expression was one that Kesri had seen before… the look that appears on men’s faces when they fight for their land, their homes, their families, their customs, everything they hold dear.

Ghosh, a modern author, doesn’t directly take us into his confidence as Dickens or Brontë, who were writing around the time this historic novel is set in, might have. We are left to deduce for ourselves, for example, that Catherine’s early romantic enthrallment was with none other than Captain Mee. Suggested objectivity impressed me, especially as I began to realize that Ghosh’s setting-forth of points of view of the forerunners of the modern right and left were equally compelling and filled with emotional impact:

The truth was that the best — indeed the only — way that the public good could be arrived at was to allow all men to pursue their own interests as dictated by their judgment… only when men were free to justly calculate their own advancement does the public good — or, for that matter, material advancement, or social harmony — come about.

…and:

The strangest part of it was that the British accepted no blame for their crimes: they made no acknowledgment of their smuggling, their repeated provocations, or their refusal to abide by Chinese laws on Chinese soil… It was as if the firepower of their ships had given the British the right to dictate that night was day.

But the tone is archaic, certainly intentionally, and the novel is packed with historic fact one can track down, and scores of Indian and Chinese colloquialisms the meaning of which can usually be figured out from the context. I had recently spent nearly a week in the city of Guangzhou near Hong Kong, where some of the battle action takes place, and the details were precise and correct.

There is a blatantly Shakespearian cascade of suicides that did make me wonder whether Ghosh was being gently ironic about himself, or a bit pompously trying to impress. Never mind, he does impress, although maybe with a bit more distant and formal tone than it takes to really get me excited.

I certainly never hesitated to return to this highly-convoluted story and toward the end actually wished it could continue. Critics have hinted that it is not the strongest of the three novels of the trilogy. I might just grab one of the others… 9.0/8.8.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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