The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire North

November 14, 2019

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.

I’ll admit that over the last few years I have become a huge fan of Claire North’s writing, so a new novel is always cause for excitement here at The Eloquent Page. When The Pursuit of William Abbey arrived, my carefully maintained review schedule was immediately thrown out the window. I was powerless to resist the call.

The premise is simple, Doctor William Abbey stood back and let a horrific event occur, making himself complicit by his inaction. His penance? To be forever followed by a ghost who will kill someone Abbey loves if it catches up with him. There is more, however. Abbey is also cursed to know the truth of people’s hearts. Not that sanitized version of the truth that we portray to the outside world. The pure, undiluted truth that people often deny within themselves.

…mankind loves to be sure. To know. We cling to the most irrational truths like cornerstones in the houses of our lives.

The novel begins at the tail end of the 19th century, during the twilight of the British Empire, and the politics of the era plays an important part. Abbey’s curse is, in part, a result of his own self-righteousness. He is a doctor and a gentlemen, and as part of the Empire he cannot ever be wrong, can he? Of course, that bold statement could not be further from the truth. Rather than embracing cultural differences, Britain spent centuries subsuming it. Some would argue we still do, and I’m not sure that they’re wrong. Since a young age, Abbey was taught that the strong destroy the weak. He is sent out into the world sure of his moral superiority. We’re reminded that the greatness of Great Britain, the rampant imperialism, was built by the suppression and suffering of indigenous cultures at every turn. Being in thrall to the truth, Abbey is forced to confront the failings of his upbringing, his culture. He is exposed to the pettiness and land grabs of the rich and powerful.

In order to survive, Abbey travels the world, always moving forward, attempting to stay ahead of his ghostly tormentor. He learns that he can never slow down, never settle. Its mesmerising watching the narrative unfold. This is a man doing everything he can to escape what seems to be inevitable. At some point his curse will catch up with him and someone Abbey loves will die. In many respects, the novel becomes a character study of a man driven by his conflicting emotions. Abbey’s internal journey, which is just as riveting as his physical travels, explores his deep regret. This all sounds terribly downbeat, but I assure you that it’s not. There are moments that feel genuinely life affirming. Hope, and the prospect of redemption, are just as powerful a motivating force as self-pity and guilt.

There is that old saying that the truth sets you free. North’s writing suggests otherwise. Ultimate truth can be a prison, especially when the vast majority of people would rather not know. Most of us are quite happy with our own version of the truth. It is the bedrock we use as the basis for entire existence. Somewhere, in the deep, dark recesses of our mind there is an awareness that we’re spinning context to fit our worldview but we all still do it.

I’m struck once again by how North’s writing so elegantly picks apart the human condition. We’re all a conflicted hodge podge of good and bad, dark and light. Abbey’s story and his burden promote introspection at every level. Could I even cope with such an all-encompassing view of humanity? At first glance, the prospect of knowing the truth of human hearts might appeal but I don’t think that would last. Too many people live quite comfortably in their own truths. A hard dose of reality may be too much to bear. Perhaps that is ultimately what the author is trying to teach us. We do need to embrace the truth, however painful it can be, it’s the only way we can evolve.

As an aside, why aren’t the BBC, Netflix or Amazon not adapting this for the screen right now? Rather than a reboot, a reimagining or a sequel I’d much rather see something blisteringly original like this. Just a suggestion in case you are listening out there TV powers-that-be.

Look, I know I’m gushing a little* but it cheers my heart when I discover fiction that challenges me, that makes me question how I view my place in the world. Claire North’s writing consistently provokes such a response and I remain a little in awe because of it. The themes explored are timeless. In these days of political misinformation, spin, fake news and outright lies, the need for untarnished truth feels like it is more important than ever.

My musical recommendation to accompany this novel is an album called The Divided Five by ambient music duo A Winged Victory For The Sullen. It has a bittersweet quality that perfectly complements North’s insightful prose.

The Pursuit of William Abbey is published by Orbit and is available now. There is a pretty good chance this may be my book of the year.

*Ok, a lot.

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