(Mostly) set in post-pandemic Denmark, Tabish Khai’s novel The Body by the Shore follows three protagonists: Jens Erik – a retired Danish policeman accused of racism by his liberal daughter, who has a vegan boyfriend – Harris Malouf, a paid assassin who lives a new life as a professor with swans as pets, and Michelle Nancy, a young Caribbean woman trying to escape reprising the role of her mother, who was forced to take care of a burdensome man.

The novel flits between these perspectives methodically, with Khair choosing the third-person point of view for the men and the first-person for Michelle. The reader isn’t entirely clear on how these three narrators are in the same novel until the end.

Accusation and guilt

When an old acquaintance, who surprises Harris by being alive, arrives at his place with a task. Harris has to unravel why, after attending an academic seminar, a group of prominent scientists suffered career setbacks and shared an unsettling proclivity for dying in peculiar accidents. Khair pushes the narrative and the plot hard – a bit too hard, perhaps, causing a tear in the seam of a novel that could’ve been a form of engrossing crime fiction – by offering the essentialised perspectives of two opposing characters: Jens Erik and Michelle.

Jens Erik’s daughter Pernille began to distance herself from her father after she encountered a picture of him breaking up a protest with a baton. Right after the incident, she writes a paper about police brutality, deepening the rupture between her and her father.

Pernille insists that Jens Erik might have racially profiled someone, even if he thinks otherwise. To be sure, the possibility exists. After all, he questions why immigrants can’t just “sit quietly and look out of the window at the fields and trees” instead of serving as “the only source of noise” in an otherwise quiet train compartment. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Jens Erik is a racist.

While Khair’s characterisation of him doesn’t affirm this, it does stoke the idea of the one-dimensional xenophobe. Khair investigates what’s hiding beneath the surface of this possibly destructive caricature. In Jens Erik’s case, it’s the guilt of not trying hard enough in a case he was involved with some years ago, when a “Negro” was body recovered from the sea. The novel unsnarls this guilt through a series of interactions with unlikely allies: a group of immigrants who, he begins to realise, aren’t all the same.

Too many demands

Some of the men in the novel, however, remain the same. That’s not to blame Khair’s ability
to write characters, but to compliment it. Michelle begins an affair with Kurt, an older
man you often forget isn’t exclusively white. Kurt takes care of the vacation homes of the rich
on Michelle’s island. After he offers Michelle her first job – which she takes – he offers her a better one: a position at an abandoned oil rig turned into a resort for the elite in the North Sea.

This oil rig, however, is a crime scene. And yes, you guessed this: you can spool a red thread through the pins on this island, Jens Erik’s guilt, and Harris – an assignment for your corkboard.

Khair writes Michelle’s portions from a first-person perspective, unlike those of the others. Michelle’s acerbic reflections on the happenings in the oil rig shorten the distance between the reader and the male protagonists. Khair takes on a counterintuitive approach that lets the reader have exclusive access to the answers to the questions being raised, except the clues are written in invisible ink.

It is not difficult to label Khair’s telling of this story cerebral, but the word is a double-edged sword. And the destructive edge is on display often. When I think about sci-fi thrillers, I imagine books that keep me on my toes. But Khair’s literary inflexions force me to stand still. Chunks of paragraphs extol exposition. Conversations loom in the background, and there’s never enough of them. Pages of essay-like interruptions tie together the novel’s climax – running dangerously close to academic writing – and undercut the suspense he creates.

Khair’s method of telling this story demands too much from his reader and himself. Flitting across dimensions of writing styles, I lose the plot now and then, and I am not always inclined to reread what I accidentally skimmed. He complicates what could’ve been another sci-fi thriller – straightforwardness in genre literature isn’t necessarily a bad thing – with literary inflexion, trying to lead genre fiction into the hallowed halls of “literary” literature, like a prize for immigrant writers named after a white person.

The outcome is writing that disengaged me from a brilliant storyline. And this effort at intertwining genre fiction and literary fiction ends up being tantalisingly out of reach.

The Body by the Shore, Tabish Khair, HarperCollins India.