“The Hungry Tide” by Amitav Ghosh

The Hungry Tide follows Piyali, an American woman cetologist (someone who studies whales, dolphins and porpoises), and Kanai, an Indian businessman who meet on the train on route to a remote area of India called the Sundarbans which is a collection of many tiny islands in the Bay of Bengal. The American is on her way to study two rare species of river dolphins who are native to this area, and the businessman is going to visit his widowed aunt, and to collect the book his late uncle has left to him. The tide of the title moves miles inland every day, partially submerging islands and mangrove forests. There are also man-eating tigers, crocodiles, snakes and sharks to be wary of, making Piya’s expedition even more dangerous. Alongside the story of the present day, we also learn of the social and political history, mythology and more modern social issues, such as trafficking of women.

I feel like I’ve had The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh on my TBR for donkeys years, but looking at it now, I think it’s actually probably only about six years. I bought it because I had read The Glass Palace and absolutely loved it, but it’s one of those books that I’d enjoyed so much, I’d put off reading anything else by the author in case it wasn’t as good. Silly, eh? I’ve also got Sea of Poppies to read soon as well, so this TBR challenge is making me read them now, and helping me get over it.

I really enjoyed this book. Using the different characters, as well as the voice of the dead uncle through his writing, Ghosh manages to convey so many elements of mythology, history and society, as well as the ecological arguments about an area of India that I knew nothing of, to produce a beautiful and haunting story. He also manages to evoke a real sense of the environment in question, and of what it is like to live in a pretty inhospitable place.

There’s such a variety of different subjects being explained and explored in this novel, yet somehow, he seems to be able to weave them altogether and they just fit. You need to know about the mythology to understand some of the actions of the local people, but you also want to need what happened to characters who are essential to the story despite not actually being in it. It’s important to know about the evolution of the habitation of the area to understand some of the politics that is present in the story. It’s also fascinating to consider the ecological arguments of endangered species against the human cost of conservation. There are big topics at work within the story, but none of them feel too much. Everything is essential to give you the full picture and make you consider the arguments, but more crucially, there is no judgement on what is right or wrong, and it’s left to the reader to decide. Ghosh only takes you on the journey, and leaves you with the decisions his own characters make, right or wrong depends on your own point of view.

Now all that seems like glowing praise, but I have to admit, I didn’t enjoy it as much as The Glass Palace. I loved parts of it, and I was fascinated by all the elements of the story itself, but I found the two main characters hard to engage with fully. I actually think that’s quite intentional to a certain extent, as I think you’re supposed to see how they each have their own ideals and ethics at the beginning of the story, and how this affects them and perhaps they change as the book progresses, so I found it difficult to fall in love with them from the start. This meant that for the first third, maybe half of the book, I didn’t actually like them much, but there was enough going on in the plot and other characters who gradually come into the story, for me to keep reading.

Overall, I would say it’s definitely worth reading, and I’m glad I’ve finally got round to it, but I still think The Glass Palace was a more enjoyable read for me.

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