Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

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Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell

Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

At the time of writing, I have the pleasure of telling you that Tigerman, with its stunning cover artwork, is the best novel I’ve read this year.  My first Harkaway is his third novel, and having met him at a book event recently at which he signed my copy of the book in orange pen (how cool is that!), I know I have a real treat in store when I read his previous titles, The Gone Away World and Angelmaker.

He is known for creating fiction that defies easy categorisation, having influences from all over – a bit of sci-fi, perhaps some ninjas, a gangster or two, a doomsday machine, bound up with adventure, and he’s not averse to including a bit of romance either.  He is truly an intellectual magpie – interested in everything. Now freed from the constraints of being a scriptwriter, he is able to use all these ideas in his own novels.

Tigerman is rather different from his other novels, though, being set in one time and one place.  The time is roughly now, and the action all takes place over a few weeks, however, that hasn’t stopped his imagination from devising a complex post-colonial eco-thriller about fatherhood and superheroes, set in a dangerous island paradise.

Mancreu is a former British colony, an island in the middle of the Indian ocean. It’s an island with a death sentence hanging over its head, though – due to its unique brand of toxic pollution and the environmental disaster should that spread – the island is scheduled to be destroyed – evacuated and then blown-up – but not quite yet.  Near the beginning of the novel, Harkaway describes how the first ‘Discharge Cloud’ erupted in florid prose that leaves you in no doubt about nature getting its own back:

The brimstone oven beneath Mancreu cooked and boiled, and in its fiery heart new, strange compounds were birthed and recombined. Dismal substances unknown and unimagined steamed in the deep, and seeped and stained through cracks towards the surface, ever upward into a huge chasm. There they made a balloon of weirdest muck, the fine membrane of earth stretched tighter and tighter until a farmer, ploughing, penetrated the upper crust and was fired some thousands of feet into the air and fully two miles sideways, falling like a burning angel in the middle of the Beauville shanty. Behind him came a warm mist which itched …

Left with no government, and so far away from everywhere else, the nearby waters have become home for ‘The Black Fleet’ – where anything goes, from prison ships, to getting a kidney transplant.  The island is officially blind to these shady dealings as long as they stay offshore.  Jed Kershaw, an American who is in charge of the plans for the island, is well aware of the problems they pose, but for now his role is to keep the peace and liaise with Lester and the scientists.

…But what really drove Jed Kershaw crazy, he said, what was going to kill him if this whole situation wasn’t resolved pretty fucking soon now, any day now, was how British Mancreu was, and maybe also at the same time if this was possible – he wasn’t sure – how French.

Kershaw had long ago realised, apparently, that dealing with Brits was tricky. … The thing was, Brits actually thought that subtext was plain text. To a Brit, the modern English language was vested with hundreds of years of unbroken history and cultural nuance, so that every single word had a host of implications depending on who said it to whom, when, and how. British soldiers, for example, gave entire reports to their commanders by the way they said ‘good morning, sir’ and then had to spend half an hour telling them the details, which was why the Brits always looked bored in briefings. … With a bit of work, they could deduce the question, too, but they always waited politely for it to be asked so that no one felt rushed.

Sergeant Lester Ferris represents the remaining interests of the British government. A good pair of hands, he is a career soldier nearing forty who has served in Afghanistan, and a bit of ‘a burned-out case’. He is hoping he can retire after this posting. He is in stasis, unlike the island – ‘he felt a brief, tiny rumble in the ground, as if the island were a dog dreaming of rabbits.’  (I just had to fit that brief quote in!). I really liked Lester, a decent man who is searching for meaning in his life. He is fiercely intelligent and resourceful, yet not a user of long words – he’s always been a doer, but now needs something else.  That something could be the boy… Lester befriends a young street kid who appears parentless, and the boy awakens a yearning in Lester to nurture someone. The boy is a fan of superhero comics, and his brand of mangled English derives from the argot therein and the text-speak of his generation on the internet – his highest level of praise is ‘full of win’. Their developing relationship is touching, and all through the novel you wonder if they can make it work…

With the post-colonial tropical setting, I couldn’t help but be reminded of some of Graham Greene’s novels, particularly in the aspects of the human relationships – and that is intended as a compliment. I was completely absorbed with Lester and the boy, and also had fingers crossed on the romance front for the sergeant too.  The characters all worked; their interactions may be funny or serious, happy, complicated or sad – but were appropriate and for the most part believable.  I say for the most part – for by introducing the thriller aspects of the novel, this is where Harkaway has great fun and can indulge his love of superheroes too.  I won’t say any more, other than to heartily recommend this novel – an ideal summer read for those that enjoy an intelligent thriller with a heart.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and would like a superpower.

Nick Harkaway, Tigerman (William Heinemann, 2014), 374pp.

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