Ghosh is mindful of his task as a novelist—to entertain. The confidence with which he shapes a good, old-fashioned diversion around these particular poles is instructive. Escapism has its virtues, but a book unafraid of ideas can be bracing ... Ghosh is not exactly subtle about stating his intention here, but sometimes a little clarity is nice ... The feat of Ghosh’s book is in showing us that 2019 is as bizarre and incomprehensible as the 17th-century world ... Ghosh is a practiced and capable writer; by the seventh page, we’re deep into Bengali folklore, and willing to accept this as a novelistic subject. That Ghosh is able to sustain the book’s momentum when its primary inquiry is so cerebral is no mean feat. The novel made me think of A.S. Byatt’s Possession, or Tom Stoppard’s best plays, texts that treat academic pursuit as something thrilling ... Subtlety has its virtues, but the authorial heavy hand does not grate. Of course, this is what the headlines are like these days. The truth is stranger than fiction, and Gun Island is a novel for our times.
Gun Island brims with implausibility; outlandish coincidences and chance meetings blend with ancient myth and folklore, tales of heroism and the supernatural set in a contemporary world disrupted by the constant migrations of humans and animals ... Gun Island...is keen to play with its own ridiculousness; as Deen and the professor slowly disinter the likely origins of the novel’s founding myth, their grandiose speculations often call to mind the satirical portrayal of the academic world that one might find in a David Lodge novel. Turn the page, though, and a king cobra is about to strike, or a block of masonry to fall from a building and narrowly miss one or other of our principals. If Gun Island can at times feel a touch breathless...then its underpinning is solid. Amid the freak cyclones and oxygen-starved waters comes the story – or stories – of migration across the ages; tales of escapology, of deprivation and persecution, of impossible yearnings for a new world that bring us, inexorably, to the terrified refugees on the Mediterranean. Which is, perhaps, Ghosh’s essential point; a shaggy dog story can take a very roundabout path towards reality, but it will get there in the end. It has to, or we’re all doomed.
Flitting across continents, Ghosh deftly summons up a pungent sense of place, whether in the mangrove swamps of Bengal or the misty, cobbled streets of Venice. The past lurks convincingly in the present. However, you can’t help feeling bashed over the head by all the talk of cyclones, wildfires, oceanic dead zones, dolphin beachings and flooding crises. And with such a host of characters representing opinions or merely in place to move the plot along, the narrative, and particularly the dialogue, are often stilted. As such, sadly, is more a fusillade of finger-wagging than a display of sniper-like precision.