Historians can only be admired for the alchemy required in blending together fragments, ellipses, and lacunae into a narrative that expresses a reality of the past in the context of the present. This balancing act reveals them more immediately, I believe, as artists, than just chroniclers and interpreters. Indeed, Kim Wagner’s The Skull of Alum Bheg is a work of art. Yet, lest you think this review will be a litany of the book’s wonders, let me forewarn you: one need not like a work to recognise it as art, for art goes beyond demonstrated mastery and skill to provoke and unsettle.
I really did want to like The Skull of Alum Bheg. Having read Wagner’s first book on the 1857 uprising, I expected his signature style of gripping, fast-paced narrative. On this count he did not disappoint. As in his other popular historical writing, Wagner delves deftly into vast primary source material to illustrate the intricate and multifaceted social histories of events (and non-events even) connected to the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion and its legacy. In this book, he attends specifically to the unfurling and aftermath of the uprising in Sialkot. Through clipped prose, Wagner contours the broad social dynamics, cross-hatching with statistics and figures and contrasting with passages from first-hand accounts. One pleasantly feels less that one is reading an historical account than a heady whodunnit, albeit a heavily researched and annotated one.