A doorstop of a novel, Fire of Flood, by Amitav Ghosh, weighs in at a little over 600 pages, but it is well worth working your way through as the plot and action build and build throughout. Ghosh uses an interesting technique, having three stories running simultaneously, flipping back and forth throughout each chapter. The gap between these parallel tales is a single line, marked with an asterisk, easy to miss when at the bottom of a page, sometimes taking you a line or two to pick up on the change of plot.
We follow the story of Zachary Reid, sailor and first mate on the ill-fated ship Ibis that features in all three books of the trilogy. We see him evolve from simple sailor and carpenter, to opium trader, ship’s captain and political schemer. Then there is Havildar Kesri Singh, professional soldier and leader of a troop of men, link man between the native Indian troops and their officers. A man of great courage and loyalty, trying to piece together elements of his family history. And finally we follow the tale of Shireen Modi, recently widowed grandmother whose late husband lost his wealth when the Chinese seized his cargo of opium. Faced with the loss of the family fortune, she set out for Hong Kong to get it back and along the way challenged traditions about her role.
It takes more than 200 pages before you spot the first hint of where the three separate stories are going to collide. But this is a novel to linger over, to take a little time to pronounce the foreign words and play a little with the unfamiliarity of the language. Roll them around the tongue and say them out loud to enjoy their poetry.
All of the characters undergo a huge change during the course of the book. We see them develop from meek and humble beings into bold and confident ones, true to their hidden ambitions and desires. Throughout, the links to the ship called the Ibis linger in the background. Characters have either sailed on it before or know people who have. Although the story of the Ibis has been told in previous books of the trilogy, not having read these is no barrier to the enjoyment of this tale. Each story stands on its own, but knowing there are others only makes you want to go back to the earlier ones, like histories you are yet to learn.
The tales of all the individuals gradually meld into a single narrative, set in the Opium Wars between the British Empire and the Chinese. We see the British navy victorious over the inferior Chinese war junks, easing the way for them to capture and then colonise the island of Hong Kong. Merchants call the shots, and forge the way for settlement and trade, and underneath flows the tension of opium trade, which the British are pushing deep into the reluctant China. And all this is happening in 1840 and 1841, at exactly the same time as New Zealand was being colonised.