The Pursuit of William Abbey – Claire North

“The truth-speaker was tall as a stretcher, thin as a rifle.”

William Abbey is a young doctor working in Africa – a punishment for pursuing the wrong girl, in a very Victorian fashion – when he sees a native boy lynched. Shocked by the sight but unwilling to intervene, William is cursed by the boy’s mother. For the rest of his days, he will be followed by a shadow; if it reaches him, someone he loves will die. And so William runs, for the shadow only ever walks at a fixed pace. He can escape it for a while, but he can never stop.

He discovers others with the same condition – but, not all of them view it as a curse. For, along with the fear comes a gift. The closer the shadow gets, the more William can read the truth in men’s hearts. This makes him a valuable commodity to some, and it’s not long before he’s made an offer: assistance outpacing the shade, and in return he’ll spy for his country.

I’ve reviewed several of Claire North’s books, and I’ve said before I find them very hit (e.g. the amazing First Fifteen Lives of Harry August) or miss (e.g. 84K), although always well written and always intriguing enough to make trying the next one a risk worth taking. I’m pleased to report TPoWA falls into the ‘hit’ category for me.

William is not a hero as such. He bumbles through life, he’s used, he’s afraid. But he’s also increasingly aware of his own flaws, and slowly, slowly moves towards a resolution to the tangle he finds himself in.

A fairly hefty dose of social commentary seems to run through North’s work; here: is it really ‘less bad’ to be a bystander to terrible events? I’m not convinced. I’ve just finished renewing my first aid training, and the first rule is “See to your own safety first”. It felt a bit unfair that William is the one cursed, for not risking himself, and not one of the men directly involved in the lynching. I guess that’s part of the debate.

It continues with a more obvious “just following orders” kind of moralising. William reports back to his superiors, but doesn’t get involved in the consequences. Then he meets someone else with his ‘gift’, and we also get to ask, do the ends ever/always justify the means?

All of which makes it sound like a very heavy read, and it’s not too bad, honestly! The telling is split between a nurse in a WWI front line hospital, who meets the older Dr Abbey, and the gent himself telling his impossible tale. I can see why other reviewers felt they couldn’t connect with the lead, as he’s a passive pawn in most of the tale. But, stick with it.

I haven’t seen the movie It Follows, although that’s what this first reminded me of, then a supernatural Victorian anti-Bond. It’s creepy, but not horror. Rather, the sheer intrigue kept me reading, and I’m glad I did.

Hardback: 420 pages / 78 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 9th-15th December 2019

My rating: 8/10

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