THE PURSUIT OF WILLIAM ABBEY by Claire North (Book Review)
‘The Great War had been coming for such a long time. It was born in the hearts of our ruling men the day they were held up in the crib and told they were blessed with a greatness that others could not share. It was nurtured when they saw their greatness challenged, and sought some way to prove their strength. Now it eats us whole.’
The Pursuit of William Abbey is a powerful historical fiction and also part-fantasy novel by the award-winning author Claire North. As I’ve never read any books by North before but have always heard much praise for her narrative style, I was very intrigued to read this one. This book is described as ‘utterly thought-provoking’, which I can say I firmly agree with.
The book tells the story of William Abbey, a young English doctor working during the 1800s, which was around the period when many countries were being colonised. William witnesses a young boy in South Africa being executed by a group of white colonists; he stands on the sidelines doing absolutely nothing to stop the atrocity, and nothing to save the boy afterwards as he lies dying in his mother’s arms. In the wake of the mother’s wrath, she curses William. From that day forward the shadow of the dead boy relentlessly pursues him across the globe, and whenever it is near, William becomes a ‘truth-teller’, as he gains the ability to discover people’s inner thoughts and desires. The shadow must also never catch William, because when it does the person he loves most in the world will immediately die.
That premise alone instantly drew me in. I mean, how could it not? Then in the opening chapters we are introduced to a wartime nurse, who meets our main protagonist, William Abbey, whilst dealing with an overwhelming amount of severely injured soldiers, fresh from the battlefield. North hits you with vivid descriptions of the mess, the gore, and the decaying caused from soldiers with missing limbs and infected wounds; the dead, the dying. The dramatic beginning certainly grabs your attention and I truly commend North for not shying away from the harrowing realities of warfare. The stark depiction also continues as William recounts the time of the boy’s execution to the nurse, and describes his horrific burning in great detail. This was a particularly uncomfortable and unsettling scene to see unfold, and it hit me quite emotionally. I respect North for again choosing not to sugarcoat anything, which also worked perfectly to establish the central theme in the novel; the nature of truths. Although this may be a work of fiction, no one can deny that these horrendous lynchings did take place in history, and no one can deny that many of those were solely because of prejudice, therefore these stories should also never be denied.
No matter what you feel about these scenes, North powerfully engraves these images in our minds, and they are images that should never be swept under a rug. We owe it to the people who suffered to know and remember the extent of their suffering, and I applaud North for bringing this to light. I also very much enjoyed North’s use of stream of consciousness during these scenes as it elegantly reflects the emotions of guilt and confusion that William wars against. He makes us question, should he have risked his life and reputation to save the boy? Does he deserve the curse or was he just as much a victim of circumstances?
A large majority of the novel then focuses on William Abbey running from the youth’s shadow in order to save those he holds dearest to him. From Berlin to Egypt to Ireland, and across the globe, we see William become embroiled in situations that become out of his depth. I felt the plot significantly slowed during this point, and went off in directions that perhaps took away from the exploration of the shadow and the curse. Although we do get more revelations on this slowly throughout the story, my expectations were that this would be the sole focal point, not one that also involved espionage. Having said that, I did appreciate the backstory to the side characters that were introduced later on. I particularly enjoyed the backstory of Margot, a French woman who William becomes entangled with, and her history was pretty sad.
I also felt the ending was left a bit too open for my own personal taste, as I would have preferred more closure. However, regardless of my opinion, the ending does have an authentic stroke to it because realistically speaking, when you’ve lived a life full of seeing truths, deceit, tragedy and a life of continuous running from a shadow, well, it’s never going to end nicely tied up with a pretty bow, is it? There are some things that you just keep on running from or chasing towards.
‘Where was that fine young man I believed myself to be? Perhaps he had never lived. Perhaps we were all just savages, in the moonlight through the blackened boab tree.’
ARC provided by Orbit in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for the copy!
The Pursuit of William Abbey is out 14th November 2019. You can pre-order it here.