By BRUCE DENNILL
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway
In an age and a culture where superheroes are larger-than-life – often literally – figures with support teams and origin stories to match, something as intimate as this tale, which is centred on just two protagonists and takes place on an island that’s way off the tourist path, immediately stands out as unique and imaginative.
It’s much more than that, though. Harkaway’s imagining of Mancreu, a remote chunk of no-man’s-land that functions as a handy crossroads for hustlers, governments with secret agendas and end-of-career military types is incredibly detailed. It’s a made-up, fabricated place with a bizarre environmental crisis playing itself out and an unwritten legal and political code that can only really be understood by those who have lived there and emotionally invested in the place. That combination of facets should make it feel like just another wonderland – an attractive place, but one that can’t really stand in for the reader’s reality – but instead it’s an immersive, enveloping setting for all the inspired, surprising action that takes place there. Strange, mystical and even dangerous as it is, it’s a place that some part of you wants to be, for at least a while, even if it’s only so that what you’re doing could be described in Harkaways’s transcendent prose.
Lester Ferris, a professional soldier on his last assignment – essentially being a placeholder in an outpost the British government want a presence in, but doesn’t want to cause a stir in – is an unforgettable protagonist. He is at times a brutally effective action hero and at other times a compassionate father figure. He is a lonely middle-aged man looking for companionship and also a canny sergeant with an eye for unusual detail. And beyond that, he that rarest of protagonists – a man who can do extraordinary things, but is desperately, beautifully, arrestingly real. Harkaway shows how – and how often – Ferris doubts; how often he has to re-think his approach to everything from approaching a woman to reporting to his bosses to things as banal as maintaining the garden at the mansion he is assigned to live in. Somehow, this weakness makes it easier to believe that he can be strong – resilient and formidable in the face of everything that is thrown at him because he has put all of his worries and uncertainties in their place.
There are completely unexpected moments throughout the book – events that change the whole pace and direction of the narrative in the middle of a page, when the characters are gently getting on with their business. But the twist, when it arrives, is still a psyche-wrenching surprise, making sense of some curious details elsewhere but also undermining the impressions you had of some of the tale’s central relationships.
There is myth and madness here, along with corruption, courage, humour and hubris. It is storytelling of the richest, most fecund sort and marks Harkaway as an author of bar-setting skill and sensitivity. And given its filmic properties it could, if properly handled, make a phenomenal motion picture.Good luck to any director trying to improve on this source material, though.