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book review

A sprawling, tense tale of prelude to Opium War

Amitav Ghosh’s novel is both unwieldy and gripping. Amitav Ghosh’s novel is both unwieldy and gripping. (Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)
By Richard Eder
November 6, 2011

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The proliferating details, the incessant off-shooting of side stories, the swarm of Chinese, Indian and Creole words that buzz among the text; these enrich and engorge, by turns, the theme of “River of Smoke.’’ Beneath the lavish ornamentation of Amitav Ghosh’s massive new novel about the events leading up to China’s 1840’s Opium War, there is a panther-like tautness and thrill; a fat man who rises ponderously to dance, and erupts with a sudden whirling agility.

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RIVER OF SMOKE By Amitav Ghosh

Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

522 pp., $28