Tigerman – Nick Harkaway

Book cover: TigermanA British sergeant with PTSD ‘retires’ to the soon-to-be-destroyed island of Mancreu, briefed to sit tight and turn a blind eye to the Black Fleet of illegal activity in the harbour. Lester Ferris is happy to do so, until a street kid steals his heart and drags him into the dying throes of a violent underworld. 

This is probably Harkaway’s least genre outing, in the sense that it doesn’t feature global apocalypse, bombs that destroy reality, ninja, cake, steampunk monks or mechanical bees. I remain a bit bewildered by the lady in the bookshop who told me it featured a psychic volcano. I suppose that’s one way of interpreting it, but it’s far from explicit – although it’s clearly her head-canon, and far be it from me to argue if it works for her. Maybe I misheard her.

Regardless, I hope it furthers his road to a broader audience, because I think it’s brilliant. This is Nick Harkaway writing a John Le Carre story. On the Le Carre side, Tigerman is a cynical commentary on politics (dirty) and culpability (deniable), and a touching exploration of the affections of an emotionally-battered sergeant with PTSD, unexpectedly making new connections during the final days of an island every government pretends doesn’t exist (and soon won’t, because they’re going to blow it up). Lester Ferris channels many stereotypes (not least British discomfort with talking about feelings) and still feels real, thanks not least to Harkaway’s deft touch in aside (The man had no calluses, and his eyes were perfectly empty may now be my favourite ever condemnation of the modern politician).

By contrast, the boy Lester hopes to adopt is pure Harkaway and draws the narrative firmly back into his preferred domain. A streetwise cipher who speaks Internet, his English is a loose string of enthusiastic gaming, scifi, and comic references that had me in stitches. Anyone who tries to make a film of this will need the perfect casting to pull this off without it becoming twee and cringeworthy, but given free rein in my head it worked just fine. The boy’s total attachment to genre entertainment turns the Le Carre set-up into a reluctant superhero story that feels almost credible – far-fetched as spy fiction, but firmly set in a recognisable world.

The rollicking adventure races with a sense of inevitability, twisting and turning through plot development that is almost mythic in its familiarity, but at no point could I assume I was sure where Harkaway would take it (I didn’t spot Gonzo Lubitsch, after all). While I’d have been mildly disappointed to find out I was wrong about Bad Jack, I still trusted that the truth would be equally spot on.

I did briefly think it was going to break my heart, but it didn’t in the end (because I am less emotionally engaged by father/son bonding, being an only daughter who never had a father) – although it was immensely satisfying.

In summary: wheeeeeeeeeeeee and also wooooo. Made of win.