Book review: The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire North

(image courtesy Hachette Australia)

In the sometimes blighted age in which we now live, the concept of truth has taken rather a beating.

A once inviolable idea that rested on the firm foundation of repeatedly verified facts, truth is now seen in certain quarters as a malleable quantity, something that can be dismissed as “fake news” if that fits your own faulty, twisted view of the world.

Aligned with this diminution of factual truth, a concomitant loss of the veracity and power of moral or ethical truth has taken place as increasing numbers of people leave an embrace of often religiously-sourced commonality of belief behind, content to let their own moral compass, which naturally they view as more than adequate to the task at hand, guide them through life’s often murky surrounds.

But have we ever really had a good grasp on the truth about ourselves muses Claire North in her latest exquisitely well-written novel, The Pursuit of William Abbey, which, in prose so rich and insightful that you will stop to read passages just for the sheer pleasure of doing so, explores how truth often gets twisted beyond all recognition under the inconsistent gaze of our own perception of events or people.

In fact, it could well be argued that real, actual truth is near impossible to come by, corrupted by the stories we constantly tell ourselves in a bid to make life somehow bearable and able to be endured.

“I am pleased with who I am. I hold up an image of myself to the light and, as I see it, I find it satisfactory. And this satisfaction is, if we look at it too closely, built of no more firm stuff than my father’s conviction in the power of piss. Yet if you should take it away from me, remove my truth … how brutal would this world then seem.” (P. 189)

After all, as the titular protagonist of The Pursuit of William Abbey discovers over a lifetime cursed and blessed by a supernaturally rare condition, it seems that all of humanity is caught up in one big self-believing lie that what we think about ourselves is actually true.

The reality is that with all the social niceties and distorting worldview filters stripped away we may not be as virtuous, noble or good as we think we are.

Certainly as William discovers very few people actually come close to resembling the person they think they are.

An English doctor who is consigned to southern Africa by an imperious father who views his son as a profound disappointment and not worthy of his time or attention, William finds himself cursed by a Zulu mother in 1884 when he stands by and allows a frenzied crowd of white colonists to beat a boy to death who is accused of an improper relationship with a settler’s daughter.

He self-justifies his inaction as an understandable response to a vile, racist system that has one system of justice for the white interlopers and another for the people of the area who have taken their lands, freedom and time-honoured lifestyle taken from them by violent force.

Whatever morality he is peddling to himself, the mother is not buying and as a result of his cruel inaction, he is cursed to be followed by the boy’s shadow, known as Langa, for the rest of his days, and to lose loved ones every time he and his new implacably forward-moving companion are together.

Claire North (image courtesy Hachette Australia)

If ever there was an incentive to keep moving it is that although the unceasing demands of a life on the move mean that William, who along with his shadow inherits an uncanny ability to know the truth in people’s hearts when Langa is nearby, rapidly becomes unmoored from the normal rhythms and emotional touchpoints of life.

Given his status as a Truth Speaker, a state that commonly occurs in non-Western countries simply because there is more of an acceptance of the reality of the supernatural than in more developed countries, he is, along with others like him such as Margot (who he can’t admit to loving lest she die) and Saira and Hideo, much in demand from spy services around the world who are anxious to know what is really happening in the hearts of men in the simmering chaos of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

As the world stumbles drunkenly towards the horrors of World War 1, William is conscripted into the world of imperial espionage where the truth, such as it is and always coloured by self-perception as much as the facts (again these vary from person to person and country to country), and begins to wonder through a series of life-changing events whether Langa is a curse or some kind of blessing.

It’s a salient, pressing question, one that is brought into even sharper relief by the fact that much of what constitutes our truth is borne of the decision we make and the consequences that result from them, something that affects William, despite his unusual and altered state as any of us.

Throughout The Pursuit of William Abbey, an at times fantastical and yet wholly grounded in raw, self-interested humanity tale of choices and the myriad twisted versions of the truth that result from them, William realises again and again how much we are products of the way we respond to situation, even one as bizarre as his.

“If you look down at the battlefield, you can see them now, I think, one running into the darkness, the other following. I do not know what will become of them; I do not know whether death is mercy, or love is easy, or vengeance is peace, or if all these things are lies, or truth, or if it is the truest thing of all to say that life is all of these, all of these truths together, in perfect contradiction, blinding us to a greater truth than what lies beneath.” (PP 419-420)

One thing that does become apparent is that while William may feel all his choice have been stripped from him, he still retains the capacity to make good and bad decisions.

Against a global backdrop of raw geopoliticking, shifting alliances and constantly morphing loyalties, he discovers that no matter the evils dealt out to him by Langa but more likely by the people he encounters such as his boss Albert or fellow spies like Ritte, he can always choose the higher road.

In other words, while his state is one that dissociates him from the normal affairs of other people and plunges him into a world where morality and ethics only count if they benefit your own interests in some way (there is, for want of a better term, any kind of absolute truth at work here), he can still choose to be human, to given power and action to his better impulses, no matter how he might perceive himself.

With reasoning on the human condition so truthfully insightful and beautifully expressed that you will gasp with the delight of reading them even as your mind clamps onto the inherent truth within like a long-lost epiphany, The Pursuit of William Abbey is at heart a deep dive into the way people perceive themselves, the great chasm that exists between reality and perception and how this affects not just individual lives but those of society as a whole.

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