Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh
With his Ibis Trilogy, published between 2008 and 2015, Amitav Ghosh proved himself an estimable literary force: framed around the Opium Wars of the mid 1800s and set in Calcutta, Mauritius, and Hong Kong, the Ibis Trilogy is literary escapism at its finest, equal parts high seas adventure, historical saga, and post-colonial examination. It’s a thrilling tale to get lost in, and one easy to recommend to other intrepid readers.
Fans eagerly awaiting a follow-up will have surely noticed a slim book of nonfiction called The Great Derangement that came out in 2016, which addresses climate change and the world’s difficulty with understanding just how much this crisis has permeated our lives. Ghosh discusses how literature rarely seems to touch upon the situation, and that in the realm of contemporary fiction, climate change still seems non-existent.
Ghosh’s problematic new novel, Gun Island, attempts to blend the compelling prose of The Ibis Trilogy and the contemplative urgency of The Great Derangement. Steeped in Bengali lore and set between India, Italy, and the United States, Gun Island aims to recreate the spirit of a lost literary adventure but gets uncomfortably bogged down in teachable moments. Ghosh incorporates the very real threat of climate change into his novel with such a heavy hand that his story irreparably suffers.
It begins well: Dinanath “Dino” Datta is an antiquarian book dealer invited by an old acquaintance to investigate a strange occurrence having to do with a local legend. As the story goes, centuries earlier in the Sundarban Islands, a man known as the Gun Merchant built a shrine to Manasa Devi, the goddess of snakes. In 1970, when the Bhola cyclone hit, Dino’s friend claimed to have seen a shrine that seemed untouched by the devastating storm. She had been haunted by the vision ever since, and fears that time may be running out to get to the bottom of the mystery. “The islands of the Sundarbans are constantly being swallowed up by the sea,” she explains to Dino, “they’re disappearing before our eyes.”
Dino decides to visit the shrine, propelled by an eerie recollection of his own and a hope that the journey might reveal some anthropological knowledge that would prove relevant to his work. This exploration sets off a chain of events that all appear to unfold by happenstance: characters are coincidentally met, symbols are conveniently deciphered, illuminating etymologies are effortlessly teased out, and memories are suddenly jogged, all amounting to a transcontinental trek that brings Dino from India to Los Angeles, eventually settling in Venice for a lengthy investigation.
“I just remembered a little bit of the story, as my grandfather used to tell it,” a character suddenly explains in one of Gun Island’s many scenes of problem-solving and rumination. “Yes, of course,” Dino contemplates elsewhere in the novel, “it was all chance, these unlikely encounters, these improbable intersections between the past and the present…” “There seemed to be a pattern,” he later posits, “as if something or someone had taken possession of us for reasons beyond our understanding.” A mysterious adventure is certainly more fun if readers feel like there’s some sense of sequential logic they can follow, but Gun Island attempts to bypass such conventions in the name of sudden, lightning-flash moments of realization and redirection. This is not with the reader’s enjoyment in mind: Ghosh torques Dino’s journey into something more useful to him and his message of impending climate doom.
When Dino’s journey brings him to Los Angeles, he has to deal with wildfires. When he meets a romantic interest, she’s a marine biologist, devastated by the plight of the dolphins. When he’s nearly killed by a venomous spider, it’s explained that “temperatures are rising around the world because of global warming. This means that the habitats of various kinds of animals are also changing. The brown recluse spider is extending its range into places where it wasn’t found before.”
This didactic, heavy hand prevails and smothers Ghosh’s initially-promising synthesis of literary folklore and contemporary storytelling. What remains is a thinly plotted after-school-special that appears to exist solely to check Ghosh’s boxes of climate-related offences in the world. Gun Island is a disappointing amalgamation of two important texts that should have never been blended, at least not in this way. It is a step backwards for Ghosh, who is clearly capable of better.