Thursday, August 16, 2012

Book Review: The Thing About Thugs by Tabish Khair

In a small Bihari village, Captain William T. Meadows finds just the man to further his phrenological research back home: Amir Ali, confessed member of the infamous Thugee cult. With tales of a murderous youth redeemed, Ali gains passage to England, his villainously shaped skull there to be studied. Only Ali knows just how embroidered his story is, so when a killer begins depriving London’s underclass of their heads, suspicion naturally falls on the “thug.” With help from fellow immigrants led by a shrewd Punjabi woman, Ali journeys deep into a hostile city in an attempt to save himself and end the gruesome murders.

Ranging from skull-lined mansions to underground tunnels a ghostly people call home, The Thing about Thugs is a feat of imagination to rival Wilkie Collins or Michael Chabon. Short-listed for the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize, this sly Victorian role reversal marks the arrival of a compelling new Indian novelist to North America.

My Review

3 Stars

Tabish Khair's The Thing About Thugs is a fast-moving tale set predominantly in Victorian England.   The novel's protaganist is a young Indian man, Amir Ali, who spins tales of his involvement with India's notorious Thugee cult to a British scientist, Captain Meadows, who is recovering from illness in Amir's village.  Fascinated by both Amir's tale and his claim to now being reformed, Captain Meadows invites Amir back to England so he can write about his experiences.  While in England, Amir becomes engaged not only in Captain Meadows' world, but also those of the English working class and various other colonials who find themselves in England.   When a wave of grisly beheadings grips London, suspicion quickly falls on Amir, whose supposed involvement with the Thugee cult has citizens - who don't believe he is reformed - assuming he is capable of committing horrific crimes.   Can Amir and his friends convince London that, contrary to popular belief, he is not responsible for the murders? 

I have mixed feelings about this novel.  While I found both the story and the characters fascinating, the narrative technique employed by Khair to tell this tale did not work for me and had a significant impact on my rating.   Told from several different perspectives, including that of a man in the modern day, the constant shifts in perspective interrupted the story's flow and were often times, especially early in the novel, confusing.  Nevertheless, Khair has created some memorable characters in this novel and, through his often eloquent prose, he vividly brings to life some of the seedier aspects of Victorian London.  In addition, I thoroughly enjoyed how Khair wove the 'science' of phrenology, which was quite popular during the Victorian era, into the narrative.  Despite my difficulty with the style in which this novel is written, it will not deter me from reading other novels by this author.   

Note: I received a copy of The Thing About Thugs from the publisher as part of the novel's TLC book tour.  This in no way influenced my views on the novel. 

About the Author

Tabish Khair is an award-winning poet, journalist, critic, educator and novelist. A citizen of India, he lives in Denmark and teaches literature at Aarhus University.

You can visit the author's webpage by clicking on this link:

The Thing About Thugs is currently on tour with TLC.   Click here to check out the tour schedule and find links to other reviews.