I found a terrific novel that I’m so happy to share with you!
Book critic Jason Sheehan calls it “shake-a-granny good” (read the review for clarity on that one), while another reviewer describes Tigerman’s “signature device” as a “kind of Scooby-Doo switcheroo”.
Both are right, and that doesn’t even begin to explain what makes Tigerman such a marvel.
Lest you think that this is a teen action story, or some kind of comic book, Sheehan also writes that it’s:
“The kind of good that makes you wonder why every book isn’t this smart and joyous and beautiful and heartbreaking; that makes you a little bit [angry] that you ever gave away bits of your life to reading worse books, and sad that so many trees get wasted on authors with less grace, less surety, less confidence than this man who can throw comic books, video games, post-colonial guilt, the longing ache of the childless, murder, tea drinking and mystical tigers all together in a big hat, shake it vigorously, and draw from the resultant, jumbled mess something so beautiful.”
I know that feeling. It’s the treasure that passionate readers seek: a mixture of joy and delight and exhilaration tinged with disbelief. The interesting thing about this reaction is that it’s unpredictable and fickle and resists categorisation (apparently, it doesn’t care which books won which prizes, it simply knows a great book when it reads one).
I almost missed Tigerman. Nick Harkaway’s work had, up until a few weeks ago, escaped my notice, and that’s in spite of the fact that Tigerman is his third novel, that his two previous titles, The Gone-Away World (2008) and Angelmaker (2012) received excellent reviews too, and that in his everyday life, Harkaway is actually Nicholas Cornwell, the son of David John Moore Cornwell, known to readers as John Le Carré, who once worked for MI5 and MI6.
I found out about it while standing at the circulation desk at the Library, with books to return. It’s because there were a couple of people ahead of me, and because I was looking around, that I spotted Tigerman close by, in a display. It has a fantastic cover (that reminded me of one of my favourite novels, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) and a great title and I stepped out of line (literally). Both the cover and title are spot on and tell the reader that there’s something singular about this work: that it certainly borrows from the canon and ethos of superhero comics, and that it’s also solidly literary, full of wit and pathos, and probably ironic.
I loved this book for all kinds of reasons.
Because it’s set on the fictional island of Mancreu, situated somewhere in the Arabian Sea, an exotic gathering place for greedy industrialists, has-beens of every stripe, sailors, fugitives, criminals, scientists and the local population (including an albino scrivener) that feels familiar from the get-go.
Because it’s a story about how, though greed and corruption have ruined the island irreversibly, its population refuses to abandon it.
Because it features a cast of characters who would be at home in a Graeme Green novel, or the movie Casablanca, or an Indiana Jones pic, or a classic adventure comic book.
Because it mixes all of these with an extremely realistic, informed, sophisticated and all too believable take on 21st century conflicts, information gathering and “intelligence”, cynical geopolitics and everything else that lives in the interstices and dark places of modern human society.
But mostly, I loved this book because of Sergeant Lester Ferris, the British consul-brevet of Mancreu, the veteran soldier who has seen too much of modern warfare (including in Afghanistan), and deserves…well…who deserves something good in his life; because the reader senses almost immediately that Lester is the heart and soul of this story, and that he’ll probably keep calm and carry on far beyond reasonable expectations.
And I also loved this book because of the Boy (occasionally referred to as Robin, in true sidekick form), a hyper-intelligent, enigmatic, edgy and fascinating character who moves into the lonely space in Lester’s good heart and changes everything.
One of the loveliest things about Harkaway’s writing is that he leaves so many things unsaid, but not unexpressed. The following conversation between Lester and the Boy, which comes at the very beginning of the book, is a perfect example of this. The awkward, tentative and encoded quality of this exchange reveals so much about the characters and what may be at stake between them:
“You like comics?” the Sergeant asked, then heard the echo of the question and saw his own child self shaking his head at the stupidest thing ever said by man.
But the boy was gracious, respecting the gambit for what it was. “Yes.”
“All. Some DC, for Batman. Grant Morrison! But mostly Marvel. Warren Ellis. Also Spurrier, and Gail Simone. Bendis full of win.”
The Sergeant grinned. He had never heard this expression before, but he approved of it. Full of win. It had a digital flavour, merry and modern. More things should be full of win.
“I like Green Lantern,” he said.
“Which one?” the boy demanded.
Oh, sod it. Now he remembered: there were so many Lanterns to choose from, and always changing, and the wrong one was like the wrong football team , the wrong church…”Hal Jordan,” he said, dredging up the name.
“That is totally Old School,” the boy approved. “Jordan is bad ass.” He separated the words: bad ass. The Sergeant suspected he had learned them by reading. He wondered which comics allowed that sort of language, and realised: probably all of them, these days.
“You like Captain America, too?”
The Sergeant hesitated. “Not so much,” he admitted. Bright colours and battlefields didn’t mix for him. Steve Rodgers was an invincible man, an overman who wore what he damn well liked, and survived. It was the men around him who didn’t make it. No. The Sergeant did not like Captain America. Perhaps he had once, when he was younger.
The boy nodded as if this was to be expected. “Batman?”
In this exchange, as in many other passages of the book, there’s foreshadowing. It’s only when I looked back through the book after finishing it, that I realized how many clues Harkaway had left for me to collect.
But the greatest sleight of hand that Harkaway performs, in his novel, is in the way he succeeds, right under our noses, in creating an opus about unconditional love and the familial ties that bind us, within a story that seems to be about anything but them, and yet offers us passages like the following:
“The Sergeant knocked on the doorframe, then cleared his throat. When this elicited no response, he experienced a strange, appalling hallucination or imagining: that the boy had died and was slowly freezing in place owing to rigor mortis. He saw himself realising and leaping up, pounding on the boy’s chest like a madman and giving him mouth-to-mouth―much too late―then carrying the tiny corpse in his arms all the way to Beauville, weeping and weeping and weeping and none of it doing any good. And what was the point of that? What was the point of being a soldier, of being a human being in a world which could work wonders with medicine, if affection―he had almost called it love, but that was presumption, wasn’t it, because the boy wasn’t his flesh, his son, and while that was something which could be negotiated it hadn’t been negotiated, not yet―what was the point of affection, then, if it didn’t exert any traction on the universe? If it didn’t heal or protect or do anything at all except hurt?”
Nick Harkaway gives away the answer to this question in the dedication of his book, which states simply:
I knew I wanted to be a father.
I didn’t know how much
until I was.
Alas, unconditional love, too, lives in the moral grey zones of life on Mancreu. Tigerman may be a hero in the eyes of many on the island, but at novel’s end, it’s Sergeant Lester Ferris who has won us over completely.