Review: The Thing About Thugs by Tabish Khair

Title: The Thing About Thugs
Author: Tabish Khair
First US Edition published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July 24, 2o12
Hardcover, 256 pages

A subversive, macabre novel of a young Indian man’s misadventures in Victorian London as the city is racked by a series of murders

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. (From Goodreads)

I was fortunate enough to receive this book from one of Goodread’s First Reads giveaways.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It was different to what I was expecting, though. By the description, I was thinking The Thing About Thugs was going to be a murder mystery. It wasn’t. Within the first few chapters, the reader is told who is doing the murdering and why they’re doing it. If you’re looking for a good mystery, this is probably not the book for you.

If you enjoy historical fiction, however, you will most likely like this book. The writing is fantastic, and the story is mostly entertaining. There were bits that kind of pulled me out of the story being told, though, when the narrator would talk about finding Amir Ali’s letters in his grandfather’s home and say that he imagined things in certain ways. I know those were put in to make it feel more “literary,” but they kind of made me want to just hurry past them and get back to the real story being told.

I love that the story unfolds in different narratives. You have the chapters that are Amir’s letters (which are written in a script font that some may find hard to read, though I didn’t), others which are his stories told aloud to the Captain, and then the chapters which follow other characters such as the murderers and Amir’s friends. The story moves kind of slowly, but by the end I was really interested to see what was going to happen to Amir and his friends, although we aren’t given a definite answer.

I really liked this book a lot. It wasn’t something that I would have normally chosen to read on my own, but I’m glad that I did. It’s definitely worth reading, especially if you’re into historical fiction.