In a bloody field-hospital in the chaos of World War One, our protagonist tells his story. Doctor Abbey is a truth-speaker. Years ago, in colonial South Africa, he was cursed for failing to stand up to the lynching of an African boy, Langa. Since then he is pursued unending by the ghostly figure of the boy. Compelled, the closer the 'shadow' is, to reveal the secrets and truths of all those around him. If ever Langa catches up, the one he loves most in the world will die.
'[At] his back, another figure moving through the smoke. He wore a doctor's coat, but those who saw him said he was more akin to the figure of death, striding ever onwards, eyes set only towards his prey. He did not run; he did not stop. He had learnt long ago how the chase was done. ... Two men, running through battle, lost to any truth but their own, hunter and hunted. [And] behind them, the shadow.'
The Pursuit of William Abbey, Claire North's new novel, is a realist drama set in the 19th century, with a supernatural twist. A mish-mash of the generic influences which typified the period, now paired with the idiosyncrasies of modern fiction fantasy.
'Then I opened my eyes, and Langa was at the end of my bed. He was barely perceptible against the thin dawn washing through the cracks in my wall. His face was an obscure medley of contours and depressions, washed away by flame, no colour to his eyes, nor lips, nor blood; merely shadow shaped. ... When he moved it was not as if he stepped, but rather as if he were propelled forward across the earth upon a haze, left arm reaching out for me[.]'
From these gothic, supernatural roots the story breaks left into its kaleidoscope of genre threads. Into the Spy Novel, as Abbey's supernatural insight into others brings him into the service of the United Kingdom, stealing the secrets and intentions of competitor nations and suppressed subjects right out of their hearts.
Into the travel novel, the historical fiction: Abbey's shadow pursues him across the colonial world, from Africa across Europe and into Asia, across the seas and into Australia and North and South America. The pages fill with vivid and colourful accounts of the landscapes, cultures, and peoples Abbey encounters, as he drifts through the electric history of the colonial world.
'Running from the British Empire ... it is not easy. Not a corner of Africa where the Nineteen hadn't extended a tendril, not a port in Asia where they didn't have prying eyes. A telegram could be flashed to India, Canada, Australia, the Cape, Malaysia, Egypt, and the authorities would be waiting from me weeks before I arrived. And would the pashas of Palestine really protect me against my former masters? Was it in the interest of the Meiji Emperor to anger the most powerful nation on Earth? Of course not.'
Further into romance and science fiction, The Pursuit blends the course of many story archetypes effectively in to one.
It is this variety which is the novel's strongest feature. Such variety is found also in the characters, who North paints as intriguing and believable. Some you come to admire, many you come to disdain - but in this way, all are engaging, while North's rich writing keeps the reader in the action.
The pages fill with vivid and colourful accounts of the landscapes, cultures, and peoples Abbey encounters, as he drifts through the electric history of the colonial world.
And yet, something in the pacing of this almost 450 page book left it feeling longer and slower than it needed or ought to be. Combined with its rather ambiguous and inconclusive ending, I was left feeling a little underwhelmed.
Moreover, the modernity which allows North her mercurial blending of genre also emerges as a moral condescension towards the past. I read a tendency in an overeager employment of a concept of 'truth' to paint the people of the past as sort of morally absent ninnies.
While there is an attractive safety in projecting the moral, social, and political developments of a century back on to the past as obvious, I believe this does a disservice to its issues, which persist today. In this way, if you are looking for Joseph Conrad, you will not find him here.
While The Pursuit somewhat touches the emotionally and politically charged content of its colonial subject, it is a story first, and not the commentary of Hochschild.
Nonetheless, the storyThe Pursuit of William Abbey tells is colourful, and entertaining. If you are looking for some fiction to chew, this is a worthy choice which will draw you onward through its many twists and turns.