Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Book Review: The Thing about Thugs by Tabish Khair

I wouldn’t call The Thing about Thugs simply a crime novel, at least not in the traditional meaning of the term; it is so much more: a historic novel, a literary mystery, a meeting between the present and the past, and kind of a fairytale.

What one mostly enjoys in this book is not the suspense, even if there’s plenty, and it’s not the fast-pace, since it reads like a stroll in the park; it’s the setting, the writing and the characters that make all the difference.

The author doesn’t seem to be very interested in the mystery, since he lets the reader know who is who and what he or she does right from the start. He is mostly preoccupied with the themes of love, racial prejudice, social status, the rich and the poor.

He paints a pretty bleak picture of Victorian London where most of the action takes place, and it’s exactly this picture, this background that grants his tale its validity, which makes it sound a bit outlandish, but nevertheless true.

His characters are sophisticated and fools; men of means and women of leisure; thugs and murderers; servants and dreamers. And most of them are either hypocrites or liars.

Amir Ali, one of the major characters, falls into the latter category. He made up a story to escape his past and find a passage from poor and illiterate India to rich and enlightened England; a story that he almost came to believe himself; or rather a story that defined him: “In some ways, all of us become what we pretend to be,” he says.

He was supposed to be a thug back in his homeland. At least that’s what he said to Captain William T. Meadows, the man who saved him from a life of danger and chaos. But the truth is that he was only a novice, a protégé of a real thug, his uncle. He had to lie in order to avoid killing or being killed, and now, living in London, in a new world that he more than less likes, but doesn’t really comprehend, he comes to realize that his lie will come back to haunt him.

As a series of brutal murders start to take place in the city, during which the heads of the victims are stolen, all the suspicions of the police, largely thanks to the yellow press, fall on the immigrants. People talk about ancient, barbaric rituals being practiced in the dark alleys of the city, and a veil of fear seems to linger over it.

Amir is the prime suspect and he can do nothing to prove his innocence, not without betraying the trust of someone he loves. So he’s left with no choice; he has to become a fugitive of the law in order to survive and make things right. In this battle he’ll not be alone, as the other poor souls of the streets will hasten to his aid: a Punjabi woman, who’s a queen bee in her corner of the world, a mostly drunken Irishman, a few of his compatriots, the thugs and the poppers and the Mole People of London, the crowd that lives underground. They know that he’s a victim of the circumstances, and if they don’t want to become victims themselves they have to take things into their own hands.

This is great book in more than one ways, as it copes with many of the issues of that past -and this present- world, and puts them into perspective. The myth is rich, the plot more than interesting and the writing quite exquisite; a joy to read.

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