Focusing on Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy—comprising the novels Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, and Flood of Fire—this article asks how novels can (or sometimes cannot) narrate the history of an ocean. Given the fact that realist novels are often strictly bounded by time and space, and by an imperative to offer detailed characterization and setting, there is a discrepancy between the scales of oceanic thinking and the capacities of the novel to do justice to them. Instead of turning to experimental forms that reimagine the possibilities of the novel, Ghosh reanimates the realist novel to tell the story of the opium trade across the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. In doing so, he looks back to a conservative vision of empire while at the same time offering flashes of radical critique. At its most inventive, the Ibis trilogy reconfigures novelistic plot as a horizontally organized system rather than a vertically organized flow and retools the realist novel for a different scale of time and space. Despite attempts to claim Ghosh for a radical politics, or to induct him into a pantheon of historians, these novels create a complicated world, often profoundly incompatible with itself. Ghosh grapples with the challenges of scale—of how to narrate large-scale historical processes while at the same time paying due mind to his unwavering commitment to setting a scene.

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