To say Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman (2014) snuck up on me isn’t entirely accurate. I enjoyed it from the get-go. But it is one of those peculiar, wonderful books that works a sort of gradual, accumulative magic: quietly, steadily building its story, almost unassuming at first, but ultimately revealing itself to be something of a monument. It’s sad and beautiful, full of heart and insight, but not without a sense of fun and a kernel of hope.
Rapidly approaching middle age, Lester Ferris is a British soldier serving out the tail end of a military career as Brevet-Consul for a peculiar island in the Arabian Sea called Mancreu. With a storied mix of British and French colonial history, Mancreu is now something of a no-man’s-land, a weird, lawless place notorious for its discharge clouds: volcanic explosions of toxic waste caused by an industrial calamity in its past. Mancreu is dying; it’s just a matter of time before the authorities of the wider world drive its citizens out and attempt to raze away the environmental stain of its existence. This shouldn’t mean much to Lester, who expects, when all is said and done, to move on to another temporary job in his transient life. But there’s a complication: he’s befriended a mysterious, bright young boy of indeterminate background, and develops an unexpected attachment. His devotion to the boy only intensifies when the first paroxysms of the island’s imminent demise put them through a shared trauma. As Mancreu transforms from sleepy backwater into a charged political hotbed, Lester finds himself transforming with it.
The dedication reads: “I knew I wanted to be a father; I didn’t know how much until I was.” On one level, at least, these words hold the key to reading Tigerman: the father-son bond shared by Lester and the boy (never truly named) is the core of the book, and Harkaway builds that relationship masterfully, full of loving nuance. But there’s more to it, broader thematic strokes about the world’s callous machinations. Mancreu is the world, or so I read it: beautiful, striving for peace, but ripped by conflicting desires, poisoned by neglect, and rapaciously used by the whims of the powerful. It’s an unforgettable backdrop, alive and vivid. Meanwhile, bubbling along underneath its thoughtful, literary surface, a surprisingly plotty melange of pulp fiction tropes drives the narrative: comic books, action movies, and science fiction all factor into its inventive world-building, both informing the message and ramping up the entertaining pace.
Overall, it’s an impressive piece of work, that grew from a curious, intriguing opening into what ultimately feels like something of a masterpiece: a neat trick, to say the least, that delivers on many levels. I’ll definitely be looking for more of the author’s work.