Much More than a Science fiction thriller
Book Review: The Body By The Shore
Rachna Singh reviews Tabish Khair's book 'The Body By the Shore'
‘Stories never end. We just decide to tell other stories’, says the omnipresent narrator of Tabish Khair’s book The Body by the Shore. The writer of the critically acclaimed books, The Bus Stopped and The Thing about Thugs changes tack and pens a dystopian novel that is set in the post-pandemic world of 2030. A semi-retired policeman in Denmark, a young Caribbean girl from St. Martin, a killer with an erased official past, a couple of ex-operatives in hiding, an abandoned oil rig in the North Sea and a bunch of scientists who die or become untraceable after attending a seminar in Aarhus in 2012 are added to the narrative cauldron and brewed well to create a science fiction beverage with huge dollops of suspense and intrigue. The niggling worries that dogged mankind during the initial phases of the Covid pandemic about a mutant monster that would exterminate our species or the conspiracy theories about how the Wuhan virus was a bioweapon, all rear their ugly heads as we plough through the novel. The ‘wired brain’ theory catches and holds our horrified attention as does Michael’s evil monologue over Dr Yong’s broken body about how human beings could be controlled through microbes existing in the human brain and body. All these bits and disparate pieces coalesce into a gripping story that will hook science fiction enthusiasts.
The book, however, is much more than just a science fiction thriller. Like most such books set in the post-pandemic world, it talks about a world where unnamed syndicates are colluding with unethical scientists to zero in on microbes that will control human behaviour. But what sets this book apart from other novels of this genre is the fact that the book also raises relevant questions and concerns about the ethics of human intervention in nature, the role of governments and corporations in exacerbating covid-like pandemic situations, the mindboggling profits made by pharma giants and vaccine manufacturers during the pandemic, organ traffic and how ordinary men and women are willy-nilly sucked into political and commercial shenanigans.
The author also touches upon several other issues of contemporary importance. The character of Jens Erik, a semi-retired policeman, brings to the fore the issue of immigration, clearly a fallout of the recent refugee crisis which saw a huge influx of refugees in Europe. The recurring argument between Erik and Pernille about ‘second generation immigrants’ and ‘first generation Danes’ showcases the attitudinal divide towards migration that has created a schism in the social fabric of Denmark and other European countries. There are also continuous references to climate change and its negative fallout. All these issues are seamlessly melded into the narrative but give the reader pause and encourage serious introspection.
The narrative unfurls slowly, and disparate threads meld together to create a composite whole. The references to ‘roots’ and interconnectivity of the roots strings together the narrative set in different countries and societies. It becomes the central paradigm of the novel. One does come across this archetype in some of the earlier works of Dr Khair, like Man of Glass, but here it is central to the narrative. The argument between Jens and Pernille about how ‘trees have roots, so they stay in one place’ brings to mind Salman Rushdie’s novel Shame where the narrator talks about how ‘roots are designed to keep us in our places.’ Apart from this metaphorical connect with other works of fiction, we find that the character of Kurt, one of the main protagonists who reflects the cataclysmic decline of all that we consider good and human, is umbilically connected and nurtured by the character of Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s 'The Heart of Darkness. This kind of interconnectivity of thought and character across various novels, adds a new dimension to the narrative.
The reader slowly peels off each layer to find a seemingly different perspective but, as the denouement approaches, discovers that all the ostensibly different perspectives are interconnected and nurtured by a common network of thought, like the trees and the fungi that are thousands of years old. The book ends on a philosophical note with the narrator holding that ‘every individual self is a teeming ecosystem which relates to the larger ecosystem in which it thrives, survives or perishes.’
A great read for science fiction enthusiasts as well as thinking readers who would like to scrape the substratum of a chimeric thought.
About the Novelist
Tabish Khair is currently working as an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Aarhus, Denmark. Dr Khair has authored several books of poetry, fiction and studies which have been critically acclaimed. His writings include poetry collections, My World (1991) Where Parallel Lines Meet (2000), Man of Glass (2010), and the studies, Babu Fictions: Alienation in Indian English Novels (2001), The Gothic Postcolonialism and Otherness (2010) and The New Xenophobia (2016). His novels include The Bus Stopped (2004), which was short listed for the Encore award (UK), The Thing About Thugs (2010), which was short listed for a number of prizes including the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and the Man Asian Literary Prize. Some of his other novels are How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position (2014), Just Another Jihadi Jane (2016) and Night of Happiness (2018). His academic papers, reviews and essays have appeared in various prominent journals and newspapers. His honours and awards include the All-India Poetry Prize (Awarded by the Poetry Society and the British Council) and various honorary fellowships in India, UK and Hong Kong. He was also writer in residence at York University (UK), Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University, JNU, Delhi University, etc., and a Leverhulme guest professor at Leeds University, UK.