Book review: The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire North
The Pursuit of William Abbey - Claire North
The truth and facing up to it can be a scary thing, particularly when you look around at the reality of the world we are living in today. There are few authors so attuned to the nature of truth and the scary implications of it than Claire North; her ability to find different ways of exploring it are continuously inventive and, despite the sometimes fantastical setting, eerily plausible. Her latest novel The Pursuit of William Abbey is another terrifying experience.
It's not just that North's observations about human nature and its relationship with the truth that are pertinent and terrifying in their implications, but her writing makes it painfully real, and that can be hard to bear. And in a way, North's necessity to deal with the painful realities are mirrored in the protagonist of her latest novel. William Abbey is a doctor working on the front during the First World War, an experience that for many revealed the ugly truth of the nature of war, the people who wage it and the ordinary man who fights n it.
Abbey and a young nurse Sister Ellis are witness to unspeakable horrors and injuries inflicted on the young men who have been delivered to the Jardin du Pansée hospital, six miles from the front in 1917, horrors that Claire North depicts all too vividly. But there is also something a little detached and above it in Abbey who, similar to Charlie, the Harbinger of Death in North's The End of the Day, can see deep into the souls of those around him. In Abbey's case however he's not there to bring solace or ease the passage out of this life, and neither is North going to bring any comfort to the reader this time.
Abbey has witnessed an event in the past that has profoundly changed him; his failure to act or speak out against the lynching of a young boy by a mob in Natal in 1884. Cursed by the shadow of the boy who follows him allowing him no rest, his proximity makes Abbey has become a truth-speaker, able to look into the souls of people when the shadow is near and know everything about them, but contact with the shadow will also kill someone he loves. Abbey is constantly on the run, trying to keep ahead of the shadow that follows him relentlessly, but Abbey's ability is of particular interest to the British Intelligence, who promise they can help Abbey elude the shadow if he agrees to act as a spy for them.
North, through Abbey, also tells the truth of the workings of the world, cutting through the comforting lies that we tell ourselves. The Pursuit of William Abbey is a thrilling fantasy, a philosophical musing on the nature of living and being human, but it's also an insightful glimpse into the political history of the world that has led us to where we are today, the shadow of Lunga can be seen as a chilling metaphor for British colonialism and atrocities committed through wars and intervention on foreign lands. There's a blend then of North's exploration of human desires of The End of the Day, with the totalitarian nightmare of 84K.
More than just a metaphor however, what also comes through is Claire North's interest in people, in stories, in people's stories, in the deep inner pain that some people endure. At times, the chase through the political developments of the turn of the century can seem a little repetitive, but the moments of insight into the bigger picture revealed in The Pursuit of William Abbey are simply extraordinary. North puts human experience and the suffering of injustice at the heart of these major historical events, capturing all the variety of life there, its troubles, its joys, the difficulty of loving and the pain of losing.