In the epilogue to Flood of Fire, Amitav Ghosh cleverly makes mention of some 50 sources which have informed his novel. I imagine that few, if any, of these were likely to have been read on an e-book. And I imagine that the novelist and his novel are richer for it. By being in tactile, perhaps even sensual, contact with the scholarship that drives the facts of his own writing, Ghosh has given life where before there was none.
However, the same cannot be said for me in my much more distant “eRelationship” with Flood of Fire. Due to the size of this novel, and resulting from a last-minute need for reading material on an overseas flight, this was the first time I read a book on a Kindle. First, and hopefully last, for this was one of the worst reading experience of my life.
As Marshall McLuhan famously said, the medium is the message. Thus my experience of reading Flood of Fire was certainly influenced by the Kindle. So let’s get my antipathy for Jeff Bezos’ vehicle for bookstore hegemony out of the way before I consider the merits of Amitav Ghosh’s book. As with my review of books, my review of e-books will attempt to be fair and balanced:
• Encouraging impulse-buys
• Lacking heft
When I was a penniless college student, I would scrounge used bookstores for novels, scholarly works of nonfiction, and even textbooks. I recall one particularly memorable Sunday spent in Powell’s Bookstore in Hyde Park, walking distance from the University of Chicago. I roamed through the extensive collection of works on South Asia. Literally, day became night as I made the stacks my home, discovering the ideas of so many fine scholars who had dedicated their lives to the study of India. As warm sunlight gave way to a snowy night, I came across a book edited by Milton Singer and Bernard Cohn. I had long wanted to be an anthropologist like Professors Cohn and Singer, living in Indian villages and cities, writing books like Structure and Change in Indian Society.
Although this hardback was used, it was in pristine condition, and priced at a princely sum of $9; all I had was a crumpled $10 for the groceries that I still needed to purchase for the week ahead. I debated whether to come back some other day when I had more money or to buy the book. I took the middle road and read much of the book right there in a cozy corner of Powell’s where no one would take notice of me. Several hours later, I knew that I had to make Singer and Cohn’s Indian society my own. With the remaining buck, I bought enough bread and milk to last me for a week.
The Internet had not yet been developed on that wintry Sunday; and, of course, that meant that there were no e-books for impulse buying. I had to think long and hard about whether I would invest in a book, and that investment was about time given and choices made, and thus the value of the book was already greater than its purchase price.
But enough of Bezos’ bookstore; let us return to Ghosh’s goods.
Flood of Fire is the third in a series of novels, “the Ibis trilogy.” I read the first two siblings as all fine works are meant to be read: on paper. And like Structure and Change in Indian Society, they too have a place of pride on my bookshelf, albeit in the fiction section. But next to those two novels, Flood of Fire will always be some kind of “buried child,” present but lacking substantial form (apologies to Sam Shepard for appropriating the title of his elegiac play, but sadly there will forever be an empty space beside Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke).
Sea of Poppies, the first born, was nothing short of brilliant. It’s as if the highly accomplished Ghosh (who is not only a novelist but also an Oxford-trained anthropologist) was writing for the first time. The language of colonial India was inventive, the descriptions vivid, the ideas fresh, and the characters unforgettable. I was so moved by the novel, that I can recall shedding tears when Ghosh pulled me in close to the people he had brought alive on paper, only to gently require that I let a loved one escape and make me wait some three years before the next novel’s birth.
While River of Smoke had all the earnestness of a middle child trying to live up to his elder brother, it had to leave home to find its footing. This novel sparkled in its inventive ability to see all sides of the Opium War waged in China and see that globalization was alive and well long before Tom Friedman claimed that the “world is flat.” Ghosh enabled the reader to be sympathetic to Chinese mandarins, while understanding that the British had an empire to expand; this particular reader found particular pleasure in experiencing what it must have been like for Indians finding their way on distant shores. Perhaps that’s what those in the middle do—see multiple perspectives.
But Flood of Fire, the last born, although wonderful in weaving together loosely linked lives, is not nearly as inventive or earnest as its sibling novels. It’s as if Ghosh is fulfilling a parental duty, husbanding this novel to complete the Ibis trilogy; while parenthood can be a marvelous experience of giving life and shaping life, here it feels as if the father of three is spent and is going through the motions to meet a commitment (perhaps made only to himself, or perhaps made explicitly to publishers and tacitly to readers). To be sure there is completeness; by the end of the 616 pages, readers come back to some of the characters we cared about from the very first installment. But for this reader, it’s as if I was doing my wifely duty, helping to jointly raise this last child by reading every page.
I am grateful to Ghosh for having written Flood of Fire. Somehow my reading life would have been incomplete without this novel. But I don’t feel transformed by it. And oddly, though all of it is in a foreign place and time, I don’t feel transported by it. Quite likely it is altogether my fault. Unlike most every other book which I have reviewed, this one has no marginalia of mine: I did not scribble notes in the white space on the top, bottom, and sides of each page; I did not draft ideas on the blank sheets in the front or back; simply put, I did not engage as I have always done. I sped through pages, making trivial comments enabled by an odd little note-taking feature of the Kindle. I felt that I was in more of a conversation with Bezos than with Ghosh.
And thus I end a dissatisfying read with an equally unsatisfactory review. I must apologize to the novelist and to potential readers of the novel, for I have been neither fair nor balanced in this so-called review of Flood of Fire. But I have been honest in conveying that the medium does inform the message.
For Nirmal, Savita, and Kamlesh (RCO’s brothers and sister); and for all siblings who attempt a fair balancing act of being first born, middle born, and last born