A dabbler in genres, Amitav Ghosh seems to continually be trying a new style of writing. His debut A Circle of Reason is a great sample of magic realism; The Shadow Lines remains realist through and through; and his ongoing Ibis trilogy is the purest of historical fiction. The Calcutta Chromosome finds the author trying on his fantasy/horror/sci-fi shoes. Not an awkward mix of the three, the book won the Arthur C. Clark award in 1996 for its extrapolation upon the history of discovering malaria’s cure and its possibility today. The resulting informative thriller is a worthwhile offering to the speculative fiction market by a jack-of-all-trades author.
Ghosh possesses a PhD in social anthropology, and the research background shows: a significant portion of The Calcutta Chromosome relates the history and unusual circumstances surrounding the discovery of the cure for malaria by the Nobel prize winning Ronald Ross at the end of the 19th century in Calcutta. Only occasionally disaffecting, the info is broken into chunks, and when related by the gregarious Murugan, is not dry in the least. As not all the accounts of the great discovery line up, Ghosh takes the loop holes among the various journal and research notes surviving the decades as the premise of the novel. The answers filling these holes not always synchronous, a strange and mysterious situation arises. Beyond paranormal, secrecy survives until today.
The story character driven, there is no single viewpoint driving The Calcutta Chromosome. Antar is a computer archeologist living a dead-end life; Murugan is an eccentric with a PhD in immunology; Mangala is a voodoo woman/cleaning lady whose role in the story reveals itself one mysterious puzzle piece at a time; Lutchman is an all too auspicious volunteer for research; and Urmila is an out-of-luck journalist unwittingly swept up in the present day revelation of malaria’s role in society. These and a few other important characters receive stage time toward unveiling the strange circumstances surrounding the cure for malaria’s discovery.
The timing of the novel its strongest point. Ghosh surprisingly seems well versed on what makes a plot suspenseful for this, his first thriller. By revealing a little here, introducing an unfamiliar and therefore mysterious element there, the pages fly by. Implications testing the limits of reality, Ghosh keeps readers hanging by a thread; the reader never knows what will happen next but desperately wants to. Only occasionally lyrical, Ghosh writes in taut, declarative sentences that guide the narrative infallibly. Often using the motif of introducing an idea, then jumping back in time to backfill the history to that point, the transition points between characters rotate seamlessly, proving Ghosh as flexible in style as subject.
As the pages turn, the reader comes to an understanding of not only the research and immunology behind malaria’s cure, but also the singular and yet unknown potential of the malaria virus. The reason the novel won the Arthur C. Clarke award is undoubtedly due to the occasionally creepy, often profound speculation Ghosh performs on malarial cell generation and its potential within human DNA. The topics of medicine and pathology not often tackled in spec-fic, it’s great to see the possibilities intertwined in a thrilling yet interesting story.
In the end, The Calcutta Chromosome is a highly readable and informative book that will have the hairs on the back of your arm standing up as Ghosh explores the history of malaria from a present day perspective on history. Knowing exactly what little morsels and tidbits will lead the reader on, Ghosh unveils the state of India and immunology at the end of the 19th century, as well as a few mysteries of his own, with finesse. Readers of Michael Crichton will certainly wanting to have a go. One hopes this isn’t the last time Ghosh visits the sf genre.