You have to be careful. Claire North’s The Pursuit of William Abbey is not the book you think it is.
It is not the book on page 1 that you think it might become on page 10 and it is not the same book on page 50 that it is on page 100. It is a historical fiction that becomes a horror story, a thriller, a supernatural mystery, a spy story, a heavily political indictment of capitalism and empire, a war story, a love story. It is the incomplete tale of a life (two lives, ten lives) told over a few nights in 1917. A confession and a conversation between a doctor and a battlefield nurse too near the trenches in France at the height of World War I.
In Africa, in 1884, Dr. William Abbey was cursed by the mother of a boy who died at the hands of a mob. He watched it happen. He saw the white men tie the black boy to a boab tree, cover him with paraffin and set him on fire. And Abbey, the doctor who ended up there after gambling, drinking, debts and an ill-considered love affair forced him into colonial exile, did not say a word to stop it. He thought of himself as a good man, if flawed. He believed that all Englishmen in un-English places were — come to civilize, to educate, to profit at the expense of indigenous peoples. He was wrong (obviously), but the epic reach of his misunderstanding takes a while to settle in. It requires the curse, spoken by a grieving mother, which causes the spirit of her dead son, Langa, to rise like black smoke from his burned body and to walk, slowly but inexorably, toward Dr. Abbey.
And never, ever stop.
If it reaches him, someone he loves dies. Quick as a fingersnap. But even when Langa is merely close, there’s a secondary effect: Proximity forces Dr. Abbey to know the absolute truth of everyone around him. This is Dr. Abbey, in his own words:
I have sat with the mother whose child is dying from influenza, and watched the girl’s lips turn blue.
Talked with lovers betrayed for a whim.
Sat with soldiers in the ruins of war, seen the places where the Communards fell in Paris, the soldiers marching forward in a stiff straight line, and known with a ringing in my heart: there is no God.
There is no God.
All these things I have known as absolutely as I know the sun will rise. And then the shadow passes, and I know nothing any more. Conviction fades, and I’m left behind, wondering what I believe, when everyone else is gone.
It’s heavy. It’s cruel. There are not many pages of The Pursuit of William Abbey (as there were not many moments of the late 19th and early 20th centuries) that are not haunted by dead things. And Dr. Abbey runs from all of it — across deserts and through towns, over oceans and mountains, fleeing before the implacable spirit of Langa, who never sleeps, never falters, walks always at a steady pace and in the direction of Abbey.
The Pursuit becomes a spy story when Abbey is found by a man tasked by Her Majesty’s government to find truth-speakers anywhere in the world and recruit them for the government. He will be protected. He will be paid. His minders will keep careful track of Langa and keep Abbey always one step ahead — by train, by boat, by caravan — but never so far that his power to know the truth of anyone he meets is quieted.
They put him in rooms with ministers and kings; make him infiltrate groups of anarchists, seditionists and revolutionaries. Military secrets, troop movements, fiscal policy, blackmail — Abbey collects it all for his masters who promise (vaguely, generally) that they might know of a cure. In Nepal, perhaps, or in caves along the Yellow River. Always somewhere else. Always somewhere that Abbey’s peculiar talents might be put to use. Because war is coming, isn’t it? One that will engulf the entire world. And information — particularly true information — is more valuable than bonds or bullets.
North can sketch a character in a sentence, a phrase. She can evoke an entire city in the space of a breath. There is no piece of The Pursuit that is forgettable, that fades, that is used merely to fill time between this thing and that. The entirety of Abbey’s life as a truth-speaker is propulsive. It is like one long chase scene that never slackens, told in frantic, disconnected pieces until a moment comes when need requires depth, breadth. The story of Margot (another truth-speaker, who came by her power in a very different way, and uses it differently, too) is devastating. The lovely, terrifying monster it makes of her is empowering. Her relationship with Abbey (which makes up the middle of the book, that keeps it together across Berlin, Prague, London, Milan) has the power to change the world, right up until it doesn’t. Her final opinion: “Let it all burn.”
Because truth is a terrible thing. Because the truth, when confronted, is always the same. That the world is run by petty, small, terrified men. That every violence is done just to prove that they are not so small, not so weak. That the universe cares for none of us in the end.
It is bleak. It is beautiful. It has, buried deep inside, a hopeful heart. Because The Pursuit of William Abbey is a chameleon. It is a shape-shifter. And, like the truth, it will break your heart every time.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.