Loot: A Novel
- By Tania James
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by Carrie Callaghan
- July 21, 2023
A delightful romp of a tale, with ideas big enough to sink a tiger’s teeth into.
In the late 20th century, British Sri Lankan theorist Ambalavaner Sivanandan famously wrote, “We are here because you were there.” Novelist Tania James spins that sentiment into a captivating story of love, adventure, and, yes, colonialism in her latest novel, Loot, in which a young Indian man with a talent for carving wood sculpts a new future for himself.
Abbas is bored by the rote carving required in his father’s workshop and is only too delighted to comply with a mysterious commission from the Summer Palace. He carves eight toys for one of the sultan’s consorts, all requested and delivered by a silver-tongued eunuch. One day, however, it’s not the eunuch who shows up looking for Abbas but rather a royal guard.
Abbas’ clever playthings, including one that depicts the sultan riding a horse whose legs scissor to and fro, have both enmeshed him in a dangerous palace intrigue and (perhaps) saved his life. The eunuch and his melancholy mistress have apparently been executed, and the sultan plans to err on the side of safety and send Abbas along behind them.
But the sultan also wants a life-size mechanical tiger that sinks its teeth again and again into the neck of the European infidel, and his French watchmaker thinks Abbas has the raw talent to carve the massive bauble — which, the sultan insists, must play music as well. That would be amusing.
James deftly weaves whimsy and tragedy into Abbas’ journey as he learns not only carving but also French (“all these rocky words”) and the basics of watchmaking. Intrigued, Abbas wants to know more, to apprentice himself to the watchmaker Du Leze, but life — and death — intervenes.
A war tears families apart while Abbas tries to survive. Amid all the churn, the novel skips from character to character like a bee in a meadow, giving us a chilling but effective tour of the Indian subcontinent and beyond in the late 18th century. Our access to others’ perspectives broadens the novel’s reach and, ultimately, its heart-tugging weight. The sultan is both silly and perceptive, the watchmaker generous and distant.
James’ most sensitive portrait comes at the end of the novel, with a mismatched odd couple — whose identities I won’t reveal for spoiler purposes — whose flawed romance rings perfectly, tragically true. They, like some of the other characters, dance up to the edge of camp but are too complex to become punchlines. James humanizes the ridiculous and, in doing so, makes an optimistic assertion about resilience in the face of the cruelty of colonialism. For though her characters are yanked around by one another’s ambitions, greed, and fear, they are never tugged so far that they leave their hearts behind.
Except, that is, for seaman Thomas Beddicker, whose journal entries in the middle of the book offer a cautionary interlude. Thomas is half-French and half-English, a boy whose parentage is the product of colonialism (an East India Company officer father and a mother seduced in the port of Calais) and whose mixed heritage would seemingly make him sympathetic to the outcasts of English society.
Against his mother’s wishes, young Thomas, too, joins the company and sets off on one of its ships. But his only onboard friend soon dies of an abscess, and Thomas suffers the bullying of the rest of the crew — men who themselves are obviously suffering under the vessel’s stifling hierarchy. This pecking order prevents them from making real, emotional connections, and Thomas’ once-tender heart is eventually calcified by racism and hurt.
Those journal entries capture in miniature much of what James depicts in this novel: the movement of humanity, the impulse to kindness, the stupidity of racism, and the impact of thwarted connections. Colonialism has a cost for Abbas and others in his home, but it has a cost for the colonizers, too. And because people, James seems to argue, are often creative and loving and funny, even colonialism offers opportunities amid the tragedy. People move to new lands, suffer, and persevere. It’s rare that such a delightful reading experience can also deliver such a complex message.