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Book Review: 'The Hungry Tide'

Sadie Quimby

Posted on November 28, 2020 21:12

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If you want to read a novel which educates as much as it entertains, this one is fabulous.

"The Hungry Tide," by Amitav Ghosh, is a novel set in the Sundarbans: a mess of islands in the Bay of Bengal. It's a treacherous landscape, where snakes, tigers and crocodiles kill many people. Despite the many dangers, there are still people living here, and "The Hungry Tide" paints an illuminating image of their lives.

I had to read this book for a class, and I wasn't very excited about that, but it really sucked me into the story after a while. There are three central characters and several supporting characters who get enough attention to feel like real people.

There's Piya, an American scientist studying dolphins whose parents immigrated from India, but she only speaks English. She's the most sympathetic character, or at least the most relatable for me, as we're both American.

Then there's Kanaii, a translator who speaks six languages and has a rather inflated ego. Through him, we get the perspective of his late uncle Nirmal, whose journal Kanaii is reading.

Finally, there's Fokir, a fisherman who, despite playing a significant role in the story, remains largely unknowable. He speaks no English, and the author chose to not show his point of view at all, instead of alternating between Piya and Kanaii.

This serves to center Piya's perspective because just as she can't communicate with Fokir, the reader can't get into his head either. His character represents the inherent unknowability of people: we can try to understand what it's like to see the world from the perspectives of others, but we will never really know how they see the world or how they think or feel.

A big theme in "The Hungry Tide" is how language can fail us sometimes. Obviously, there are issues with language barriers, but even among people who speak the same language, there are times when language can't go far enough.

Sometimes people can reach an understanding without words, and other times even two people who speak the same language can't communicate how they feel, or come to any sort of common understanding.

Some (but not all) of the other themes explored in this book include the religious stories of the tide country, the clashing cultures of Piya and the people of the Sundarbans, romantic undercurrents, the role of people in the natural world, and the history of the tide country.

It's pretty amazing how much Ghosh manages to squeeze into one book which isn't even that long. Despite the wide range of topics, the story flows well and is one cohesive whole. If you are open to learning a little about a culture and a way of life that's likely very different from your own, I'd highly recommend this book.

Sadie Quimby

Posted on November 28, 2020 21:12

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