The Lost Love Songs of Boysie Singh by Ingrid Persaud review – a bad man in Trinidad

<span>Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1946.</span><span>Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images</span>
Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1946.Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Boysie Singh was a Trinidadian bogeyman. “Behave yourself,” mothers would warn their naughty children, “or Boysie goyn get allyuh.” A notorious gangster, he terrorised Trinidadian society for decades until his death by execution in 1957. Ingrid Persaud’s new novel, The Lost Love Songs of Boysie Singh, follows in the wake of her debut, Love After Love, which won the Costa first novel award in 2020. This time she fictionalises a true story, capturing the particularities of the period and the place, while imagining Singh through the voices of four women, each differently affected by his actions. In doing so, the novel manages to acknowledge Singh’s remarkable personal magnetism while also committing to the women’s point of view. The novel doesn’t heroicise his villainy, but it does struggle to overcome a problem: namely, that Singh, as Persaud’s characters know, is a troublingly alluring figure.

Persaud writes in an Indian Trinidadian vernacular that feels sharp, vivid and true

Born John Boysie Singh in Port of Spain in 1908 to Punjabi Indian parents, he was known as “the Rajah” – the Hindu word for “king”. Singh’s criminal activities were extensive: from running brothels and gambling dens, to piracy, racketeering, human trafficking and murder. Persaud’s novel begins, dramatically, with what seems to be the real news report of his execution in the Trinidad Monitor of 23 August 1957, which records him walking to the gallows: “Wearing prison-issue white cotton pyjamas, the Rajah met his death …”

Persaud is fortunate in having such rich source materials with which to work. Archival photos of Singh reveal a startlingly handsome man, flamboyant and stylish. One grainy black and white portrait shows him posing smartly against a studio backdrop, hand on hip, dressed in a brilliantly white zoot suit with billowing trousers. Persaud’s job is to translate the charisma that so evidently emanated from him into her book. She does this by demonstrating the power he exercises over the women in his circle. There’s Mana Lala, the devoted mother of Boysie’s son, who dreams of finally taming him; Popo, the sex worker whom Boysie treats with a brutal passion; Doris, the young woman determined to marry him despite the rumours; and Rosie, who runs the local store and remembers Boysie from their childhood in the orphanage.

Persaud writes in an Indian Trinidadian vernacular that feels sharp, vivid and true, and the story alternates between the women, each adding a new piece to the emerging picture. Mana Lala is checking her son’s head for lice “when boss man breezed in”. She describes how “the bai ran to he baap [father]”. When she prises them apart, Boysie punches her with such force that her mouth fills with blood. Later, “with buss lip and head”, she stares out into the night: “I looked at the way the stars were jammed up, filling the sky and asked God what I do to deserve this. Somehow I’d fooled myself that Boysie was different. Not true.”

In telling the women’s stories, Persaud is obliged to present some bitter truths. She portrays the susceptibility of the women who fall for Boysie’s charms and the rivalry they feel for each other. When Popo visits Mana Lala and tentatively proposes stealing Boysie’s money so that they might escape to Tobago, Mana Lala betrays her. Boysie punishes Popo by force feeding her roti filled with broken glass: “Still gripping my throat, he pushed me back on the bed and straddled my chest. Suddenly, I wanted my mai. I wanted to tell she that I loved she. I was going to die here in Prince Street without ever seeing she again. Mai, mai, mai.”

Persaud writes violence, and gender-based violence in particular, with an unflinching clarity. It makes for a testing read at times. But she is alert, too, to the way in which stories of violence – sometimes gratuitous – are part of the mythmaking around Boysie. At her shop counter, Rosie listens to tales of Boysie’s black magic: “Oh Lord, oh. Taking a baby’s heart while it’s still beating? That mean he kill a child in cold blood … Oh gosh, man. Boysie Singh, over wicked.”

But Rosie also remembers him as “a barefoot, raggedy” orphan. Here Persaud offers a morsel of a backstory – a neglected childhood – that might be taken as an explanation for the adult Boysie’s violence. It feels like a moment of weakness on Persaud’s part, a kind of vague amateur psychologising, but ultimately her novel refuses to dignify him with his own interiority. “This is the tale of four women” is the assertion on the book’s flyleaf. Refusing Boysie a voice makes for a provocative, if not entirely successful narrative strategy. The novel still revolves around his absence. But the women Persaud gives voice to tell a compelling story.

• The Lost Love Songs of Boysie Singh is published by Faber (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.