I enjoy Claire North’s writing – see my reviews of The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Touch and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. So I was delighted when I was approved to read this intriguing offering. I will be linking this review to the Wyrd and Wonder 2020 event, featuring all kinds of fantasy.
BLURB: South Africa in the 1880s. A young and naive English doctor by the name of William Abbey witnesses the lynching of a local boy by the white colonists. As the child dies, his mother curses William. William begins to understand what the curse means when the shadow of the dead boy starts following him across the world. It never stops, never rests. It can cross oceans and mountains. And if it catches him, the person he loves most in the world will die.
Every book North has written under this current pen name – see my review for A Madness of Angels – Book 1 of The Midnight Mayor by Kate Griffin – has ostensibly been a standalone. However, there is a theme developing here. Individuals who, by luck or some kind of genetic predisposition, find themselves coping with an unusual trait that takes them beyond everyday life and into the realms of the paranormal. William is another of these unfortunates – having been cursed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time – and when his shadow approaches, he divines the truth of those around him. And as his shadow gets ever closer, he is forced to babble that truth aloud.
This adventure stretches from the 1880s, and ends in 1914 in a field hospital during World War I, so you won’t be surprised to discover that it isn’t long before William’s unique ability draws down attention from the British Empire intelligence services and their department Nineteen. In return for keeping William on the move, so that his shadow is never able to completely catch up with him, he goes where they send him and learns the truth from ambassadors, princelings, other agents all around the world. It gives North an ideal opportunity to chart some of the political shenanigans that goes on during that turbulent time, which she does in impressive detail.
This is, indeed, an impressive book. The prose is impassioned and elegant, the character caught up in a horrible situation so that he is so far out of his comfort zone, he is almost drowning. And yes, if you’re sensing a but, you’re right. I didn’t really like William all that much. I didn’t like anyone all that much. While I sympathised with him intellectually, I simply found him too annoyingly wet and steeped so deeply in his own self-loathing, that I was unable to truly bond with him. And that’s a real shame, because the book is a magnificent achievement. I don’t think I’ve encountered a more impassioned and literate critique of our social value system, both then and now.
I just wish there had been a few more shafts of light and humour, which I know North is capable of writing brilliantly – because by the time I was two-thirds of the way through this one, I was conscious that I’d become a bit numbed to the ceaseless acts of violence against the poor and powerless. That might just mean I’m a really shallow person, but my sense is that if that burning anger against the social injustice of the capitalist, elitist mindset had been just a bit less intense, then there would have been room for me to jump on board, too. I’m also not a fan of the ending.
I’m conscious this sounds like one long moan – but if someone offers me the chance to read her next book, I’ll take it like a shot. North is a remarkable talent, who sees the world in a particular way and although I often find the journey alongside her uncomfortable, there is too much to admire to want to miss it. Recommended for fans of magic realism adventures with a literary edge. The ebook arc copy of The Pursuit of William Abbey was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest opinion of the book.