First and foremost, Tabish Khair’s novel, The Thing About Thugs, is a great read. Both literary and accessible with beautiful writing and colourful characters, it’s well worth your time.
The Thing About Thugs is also an accomplished act of ventriloquism. Khair’s narrative moves between the voices and thoughts of diverse characters and a narrator, bringing them to life, no simple task as the characters reflect both the highest and lowest ranks of London’s society and beyond. This is what makes the book most interesting: it takes a Victorian murder mystery and melds it with world literature, with a diverse cast of characters from the Indian sub-continent. And rather than being the usual voiceless background characters, to add colonial colour, here, it is their story. They are the main characters.
I like this hybridisation. One of my favourite novels, Fall on your Knees, took the Canadian pioneer novel and melded it with the Canadian multicultural novel to create a fabulous story. Here, this combination of literatures raises questions, subtly, about who is speaking and who has power. Also adding complexity and engagement to the book is the question of perspective and reliability. The main character, Amir Ali, voices one story through his love letters to his object of affection, Jenny. William Meadows, who interviews Ali on his life as a ‘thug’ presents academic notes towards a book. Later in the book are newspaper reports and clippings. The characters are portrayed in the narration but also speak at other times for themselves. Even the narrator himself is suspect. The act of storytelling, and writers writing about themselves being writers, is a theme worn thin in literature, but here I found the exploration of storytelling playful and engaging. When the narrator’s voice actually breaks free of the story completely to muse upon his role, it is poignant. The story is narrated ’not only through claims of knowledge and visibility, which are inevitably based on my knowledge of myself, but also through conjecture, silence, darkness.’
Also amusing is the very key theme of the book, nature vs. nurture, and how we are formed by culture or biology. While there is never a question of who wins the debate in the book, the theme has a nice modern ring to it in this age of genome testing and DNA analysis. The writing itself though is marvellous. In one dinner party scene, readers are successfully drawn back into the physical time and setting amidst the moral debates and concerns of the time where the conversation of the different guests starts to smell itself of its subject matter: ‘the pungent scent of science’, ‘gardens and nonchalant domesticity’ and ‘an odour composed of equal portions of the ballroom and the stable’.
And last to mention is the lovely handing off of the narrator from a focus on one character to another, where the last part of the novel is in the hands of the memorable Qui Hy, a wise and wily old Punjabi woman. To have a scrappy elderly outsider play a heroine’s role feels a wonderful overturning of the structures of power of the time and described in the book. That the book was so satisfying and funny and enjoyable does not take away from its serious literary accomplishment.