There was a great deal of marketing hoo-ha around Nick Harkaway’s first novel which always makes me wary, so much so that I avoided it but when Angelmaker was published so many readers whose opinions I respect jumped up and down proclaiming it a masterpiece that I though I’d better take a dekko. It’s a science fiction thriller so regular readers of this blog will understand why I wasn’t so keen but more fool me for prejudging what turned out to be a riveting novel of startling invention. Tigerman isn’t quite in the same league for me – it was the sheer wackiness of Angelmaker that was so captivating and this one’s more conventional if that’s a word that could ever be applied to Harkaway’s work – but it still had me gripped, amazed at one point by its twistiness.
It’s a thriller so to dwell too much on plot would be to ruin it. Suffice to say that there’s a flying superhero tiger and another who purrs like an avalanche; a sergeant, wise in the ways of war, longing for a child; a comic-book obsessed, internet-mad boy who seems not to have a family; a volcanic island poisoned by chemical waste on the verge of being blown up to purge it from bacteria; a bomb made of custard powder; good guys, bad guys and a few in between. Over it all looms the presence of the Fleet engaged in all sorts of dodgyness – floating brothels, slave ships, torture vessels – taking advantage of the international legal limbo in which Mancreu exists. It’s told from the point of view of Sergeant Lester Ferris, designated the British representative in this old colony after tours in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, part of whose brief is to keep an eye on law and order. Life ticks along in an unchallenging kind of way until a shootout in the café which Lester and the boy he’s befriended frequent sees the death of their dear friend. Not knowing where to start in his murder investigations, Lester begins with three seemingly unrelated mysteries – some stolen fish, a missing dog and the recurring appearance of a joyous ghost-woman. By the end of the novel all three will be solved in ways you never would have conceived.
There’s serious stuff wrapped up in all this albeit with a nicely satirical, comic edge. Harkaway swipes away at peace-keeping forces, international law and the language of diplomacy – ‘Hearts and minds, bollocks. It was amazing how often that expression was used to describe what had already gone and could not now be clawed back’ – to name but a few. Lester is an endearing reluctant hero, resourceful and used to the hair-raising experiences of war but with a great aching hole where a child should be. Harkaway is given to entertaining little digressions always neatly sewn into his narrative and has a nice line in throwaway rants. ‘Bugger Marathon. And then, irrelevantly: And they call them ‘Snickers’ now, anyway. Old anger. Chocolate bars should not take on new identities. They should be content with who they are’ seems like a heartfelt annoyance in the midst of Lester’s frantic chase. You also get the feeling that Mr Harkaway spends a good deal of his time looking up esoteric facts on the internet – how else would you know that custard powder is combustible – all put to good use, though. Altogether, it’s a virtuoso piece of entertainment which hurtles satisfyingly towards its conclusion after delivering a startling, didn’t-see-that-coming sucker-punch of a twist.
If you’d like to read about how Nick Harkaway sets about his writing, and what prompted him to write Tigerman, Annabel’s House of Books has a lovely account of an evening with him. He sounds like a jolly nice chap to me!