cover image Loot


Tania James. Knopf, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-0-593-53597-4

James (The Tusk That Did the Damage) returns with a spectacular tale of creativity and colonialism drawing on the “Tippoo’s Tiger” automaton displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In 1794 Mysore, India, teenager Abbas carves intricate mechanical toys at his father’s furniture shop. After Mysore’s ruler, Tipu Sultan, learns of Abbas’s talents, he orders Abbas to help French inventor and clockmaker Lucien du Leze craft Mysore’s first automaton. Their “fantastical curiosity,” as Tipu calls the life-size wooden tiger capable of sound and movement, pleases the court. While under du Leze’s tutelage, Abbas meets Jehanne Martine, the biracial daughter of Tipu’s French armorer. Du Leze, Jehanne, and her father sail to France in 1799, and Abbas stays behind to tend his ailing father. His hopes to follow them are dashed by Britain’s bloody conquest of Mysore, and by the time he arrives in Rouen in 1805 to take up the apprenticeship he’s been promised, du Leze is dead. He reunites with Jehanne, who tells him the British have shipped the mechanical tiger to England with other looted artifacts. Abbas proposes an audacious plan to reclaim the object, believing its public display could make them rich and give them the chance to make their mark on history. There’s an unceasing exuberance to the prose, and James’s descriptions are endlessly witty (du Leze’s outfit for the tiger’s unveiling, an Afghani tunic and a shawl from Kashmir, is “an atlas of textiles”). Rarely is a novel so dense with painful themes also such fun. At once swashbuckling and searing, this is a marvelous achievement. (June)