Gun Island is my first Amitav Ghosh, but certainly not my last. I love his style and this book. I’m particularly drawn to Ghosh’s ability to weave various current news topics into a compelling story. It grounds the narrative solidly in our own time period, and hopefully helps readers understand the human aspect of these very real crises.
In Gun Island, Deen Datta is a rare book dealer splitting his time between Brooklyn and Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta), India. He’s introduced to a mysterious folk legend about Bonduki Sadagar (the Gun Merchant) and thus begins the journey that comprises this book. In his quest, Dean meets a variety of people from scientists and humanitarians to boat drivers and tech-savvy young drifters. All the while, he experiences internal and external existential crises.
Externally, Deen travels to places in India and Europe where climate change causes flooding that displaces people. Even the creatures of the oceans are out of sorts. People in Northeastern India and Bangladesh flee their home villages and become refugees in cities around the region and the world. Both of these crises are essential to the framework of this book. It’s as if they are the tree and the leaves are the legend, with Deen’s exploration about it. If either were removed, the tree wouldn’t be whole. Neither would Gun Island.
Internally, Deen is a 60-something man searching to find himself amidst memories and uncertainty. He speaks longingly of home and of being loved. Yet, neither of these things have a solid presence in his life. He worries that this quest is frivolous and fruitless. Then he discovers that he’s an invaluable link in a chain that keeps others alive. There are abundant, thought-provoking themes in Gun Island.
Deen is a complex man with a circle of unique friends. Ghosh allows the character studies to inform the societal aspects of the story. And vice versa. Plus the locations are fascinating. Having just read another book about India, I hesitated to read this right away. Thankfully, it was much more satisfying. I learned so much about Kolkata and the area called the Sundarbans.
Ghosh hits the scourge of white supremacy on the head. There’s only a tangential group of supremacists in the novel. We don’t know those characters even though they’re present. Instead, Ghosh highlights their attitudes by focusing on the refugees of color in his book. Their experiences show just how exponentially harder it is to be a refugee than a white European or American.
But make no mistake, this is a story first and a social commentary second. Once I started, I absolutely gobbled this book up. I’ll admit I was unsure about how Ghosh would balance the aspects of Gun Island. So, I borrowed it from the library. As I reached the last few chapters, I knew I wanted a hard copy. It’s just that good.
I recommend this for socially conscious readers, especially if you think deciphering the code of an ancient legend sounds intriguing.
Pair with a climate science book like The End of Ice by Dahr Jamail or with another book that combines real hardship with compelling characters, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.