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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now a novel that tells the story of a ship; a tiny, floating universe within itself, peopled with a vast array of disparate characters. It's called "Sea of Poppies" by Amitav Ghosh, And our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, is enthusiastic.

ALAN CHEUSE: Amitav Ghosh conjures up a former slave ship, called the Ibis, in the year 1838. The ship is packed with a multitude of characters. A mixed-race novice sea hand from Baltimore named Zachary Reed and a mob of indentured Indian peasants, including a woman named Deeti and her giant of a paramour, Kalua, both important to the plot; figures high and low, such as a rajah in debt to a British businessman and a Chinese criminal; farmers and soldiers; Malay crewmen, and a female French stowaway. They're all sailing to the island of Mauritius on a voyage that somehow plays a role in the British war to open up China to the opium trade.

Ghosh tells the story of how all these characters, Indians and crew alike, end up on this voyage in an appealing, somewhat modified lingo of the period when British English mingled with Indian Englishes and dallied with dozens of other dialects, ships lore, pirate talk, Lascar pidgin and all the other verbal music of the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. And beneath it all, like the endless rolling salt sea, Ghosh's own beautifully made sentences and paragraphs buoy up ship, plot, characters, and the setting itself with a natural ease and beauty.

As in this passage - pun intended - when the ship with its indentured passengers, most of whom have never seen the ocean, anchors for one last night in Indian waters. "The last place," Ghosh writes, "from which the migrants would be able to view their native shore." "This was Saugor Roads, a much-trafficked anchorage in the lee of Ganga-Sagar, the island that stands between the sea and the holy river. The very name, Ganga-Sagar, served to remind the migrants of the yawning chasm ahead. It was as if they were sitting balanced on the edge of a precipice, and the island were an outstretched limb of sacred Jambudvipa, their homeland, reaching out to keep them from tumbling into the void."

Reading this novel over a number of days, it takes its time, and so it takes your time, but only in the best of ways. I came to understand that all the good books do that, don't they? They help us to keep from tumbling into the void.

SIEGEL: The novel "Sea of Poppies" is by Amitav Ghosh. Our reviewer is Alan Cheuse.

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