The Thing About Thugs by Tabish Khair

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The Thing About Thugs
256 pages; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Amir Ali has changed his identity to escape from a family feud in India. He claims to be an ex-Thug, a former member of the (made-up) Thuggee cult, which murders people for the sake of killing. As such, he allows himself to be "studied" by a phrenologist—a man who researches the so-called science of skulls and how their shape determines character. The phrenologist takes Amir to London to understand how a man with a skull that predisposes him to murder came to be reformed. This facilitates Amir's escape, but it lands him in an even bigger mess. In England, he finds a world replete with racism and a white upper class hell-bent on proving its own superiority through "scientific" means. The only way for him survive is to keep playing into the story of racial superiority that the upper class wishes to promote by showing himself off as a curiosity. Then, when a string of ugly murders takes place, Londoners unite in pointing fingers at Amir the Thug, and Amir's new identity becomes a liability. Who, after all, will believe in the innocence of a "confessed" murderer when they don't know that his story is a lie? As he searches for the real killers, he becomes confused as to who he really is. He wonders, almost obsessively, "Can stories—told by yourself, told by others—turn us into something else?" His saga shifts with every sentence. Will he find the killers stalking London? Will he find himself again? It's hard to know which question you want answered more—both will have you turning pages feverishly. But be warned: If you want a book with a neatly packaged ending, this isn't it. Rather, its elliptical conclusion is proof positive that when it comes to the really big stories, the ones that define who we are, the telling is never over.
— Nathalie Gorman