Published by Orbit on November 12, 2019
Genres: Historical Fantasy
Length: 12 hrs 40 mins
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A hauntingly powerful novel about how the choices we make can stay with us forever.
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.
Gripping, moving, and utterly thought-provoking, this novel proves once again that Claire North is one of the most innovative voices in modern fiction.
I am a huge Claire North fan. Regardless of topic, her writing is lyrical and vivid and, at times, graphic. The Pursuit of William Abbey begins in the 1880s and continues into the first World War, while taking us around the world. North brings the era, the people, and the places alive for us, through her characters and descriptions.
William Abbey is cursed. He watched a boy be tortured and burned without doing or saying anything- this scene is devastating. As the mother kills her child to end his suffering, she sends out her curse and it lands on Abbey. As the blurb says, the shadow of the dead boy starts following him and when it catches him, the person he loves most will die. The person he loves most, not the person he should love, not the person he pretends to love, the person he truly loves most. Using modern transportation, he can stay ahead of the relentless, shuffling shadow, but he has to keep moving. The shadow also makes him a Truth-Teller. The closer the shadow is, the more he can see the truth in people’s hearts, can’t tell a lie, and when it’s too close all he can do is blurt out the truths of those around him in a stream of uncontrollable words. It’s a curse definitely, but others would also say a gift, and maybe even a condition to be exploited.
North wraps so much into this novel. First and foremost it’s about truth, good and bad, objective and subjective.
There is the truth we tell ourselves, she’d say, and then there is the reality of the world as it is, and that is always harder to see.
It’s also about racism, colonialism, and classism. Abbey is a European white man. Those who understand the most about his curse are women, are non-European, are not his kind of people. Abbey is not a sympathetic character. The first we learn about him is his acceptance of the racism around him, even if he is vaguely uncomfortable with it. He is selfish and bitter, and even though he is forced to tell the truth at times, he will lie when he can. He does good deeds, but not always out of altruism.
Above, I categorized The Pursuit of William Abbey as historical fantasy, and that’s true, although I don’t think only fantasy readers would enjoy it. The fantasy element is mystical and while it does drive the plot, it still feels real. It’s also a spy thriller. The powers that be, the people who run espionage rings are more than willing to take advantage of the Truth-Tellers they can lay their hands on, especially in the lead up to war. It’s also a bit of horror, with the black shadow hands clawing their way out of dead bodies.
This is not a quick read. It can be slow and meandering, but the second half does move a bit faster, as the thriller portion of the story kicks in. But for me, the pace matches the plot. It moves forward relentlessly but at the slower pace of the shadow and of the era.
I was a bit disappointed by the ending. There’s a lead up to a tense scene in a hospital room, with the sounds of the battle only about a mile away and the shadow coming closer, closer, but we’re not given any closure. Overall though, it’s a fabulous read and worth the time. In actuality, the ending fits the story well, it just left me with a bit of a “that’s it?” feeling.