Books of the year 2011: David Marquand

River of Smoke - Amitav Ghosh

 

This year, I have been extraordinarily fortunate: two fantastic books have come my way, both destined, I believe, to become classics. The first is Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke (John Murray, £20). It is a sequel to his Sea of Poppies but can be read on its own. It is a wonderfully rich and subtle novel, skilfully written and mordantly plotted, and telling the story of a Canton-based Parsee opium dealer on the eve of the first opium war. Nothing I have read brings home more forcefully the evil of British imperialism in that era.

The second great book is Norman Davies's Vanished Kingdoms (Allen Lane, £30), a monumental history of 15 European realms, from the Visigoth kingdom of Tolosa in the 5th and 6th centuries to the Soviet Union in the 20th, all of which have disappeared from cartographic ken, and some from human memory. Vanished Kingdoms is great history and also great art. It is written with verve, passion and profound empathy. No one who cares for the past of our continent should fail to read it.

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