The Thing about Thugs

The last of the Man Asian Literary Prize shortlist I completed last week but have only now had time to put down my thoguhts.  This book by Tabish Khair was a very structured and well written account of events unfolding in Victorian England with all its prejudices and primitive scientific reasoning of the time brought out neatly by the author. I found it fascinating on a number of levels. I enjoyed the multiple narratives contained in the chapters. I did not find this difficult to follow and in fact the device of using a writing font for one of the voices felt appropriate. Indeed in the latter sections the narrative was taken up by a character who had been silent hitherto though had appeared on the periphery of scenes. I liked this and it added to the observational quality of the final scenes.

The story tells of an english captain returning to England with an Indian ‘thug’ or at least someone who is telling stories of thuggery. In fact this is revealed as a fabrication but this pretence serves to undo him in the course of the novel as he becomes unfairly accused of beheading various individuals. The prejudicial nature of the press coverage and the latent racism involved in these accusations is well set out by the author. Plus the racism of society which keeps this Indian away from his lover in public is another min story but good observation and well portrayed.

Another element overlaying the story is the interest in phrenology and the way in which their pseudo science is being hailed as a method of reading heads and identifying different, particularly deviant, characteristics. A precursor of Lombroso here I think and though it is presented someone preposterously the way the arguments are accepted as potentially causative accounts of reality has been and continues to be echoed by positivistic criminologists to this day. Even with more science the difficulty of imputing characteristics to types remains somewhat elusive.

Of course this interest in phrenology reveals another layer of deceit operated by the aristocracy who turn a blind eye to the beheadings in pursuit of the need for ‘heads’. The layers of intrigue make this novel continually surprising and readable.

I enjoyed this novel and on the day in which I go to meet the authors and tonight garner my thoughts for a guess at the eventual winner this book has certainly become one of my favorites.

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