Khair's American debut—published in his native India in 2009 and shortlisted for the Man Asian Prize—is an intricate, mostly winning parody/tribute to the Victorian novel.
Set largely in 1830s London—a locale Khair reassembles using a witty pastiche of details from Dickens, Wilkie Collins and others—the novel centers on Amir Ali. Ali has come to England as a combination of refugee, research subject and mascot. He serves his condescending sponsor, Capt. William Meadows, by pretending to be a reformed member of the infamous Thugees. Meadows, a smug advocate of the powers of phrenology to reveal character traits, is writing a book about Amir called Notes on a Thug. The novel offers a wide variety of source-texts: snippets from Meadows' preposterous work of literary ventriloquism, in which Amir sings flowery praises to the Englishman's superior intellect, superior customs, superior God; Amir’s secret notes in Farsi script to his illiterate beloved, Jenny; scandal-sheet newspaper stories; meditations by a present-day narrator who purports to have found Amir's papers in his grandfather’s library and to be embroidering them into this novel. A mystery emerges, a twist on the actual case of William Burke, the “resurrection man” who, along with an accomplice, smothered street people in order to deliver their bodies to a surgeon who needed cadavers to study. In Khair’s reimagining, someone is decapitating—and stealing the heads of—victims, many of them immigrants. Suspicion falls on Amir, who feels complicit, as if his made-up stories about foreign evil at large have conjured a real-world form. Eventually, the case has to be solved, not by the bumbling office-bound authorities, who perceive the world through a scrim of racism and civilization that blinds them, but by an informal community of street folk led by a Punjabi woman, Qui Hy. Khair’s style is nimble, and his investigations into the nature of identity are compelling. But the mystery loses momentum and sputters out—finally, Khair isn’t as interested in it as he is in his (convincing, but not subtle or surprising) allegory about the racism and atrocity of colonialism.
Smart, entertaining—but not quite satisfying.