Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

Posted on: July 28, 2014

An edited version of this review was previously published in Dawn Books & Authors.

Lester Ferris, almost 40, fatigued and a little lost, isn’t much of a soldier these days. After Afghanistan, he’s been waiting for retirement as the brevet-consul on the island of Mancreu, where he’s been spending his days simply, ‘a week in and a week out …for more than two years: walk, take tea, and say hello.’ Lester spends a lot of time at his friend Shola’s cafe, where he hangs out with a bright young boy who has very fast become a sort of surrogate son. Lester would like to adopt the boy and take him back to England, but he can’t seem to find out much about him. Lester’s primary concern is how to facilitate this adoption, until a sudden attack in the cafe forces Lester to step up and save the day.

Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman is as much of a fun, enthusiastic romp as his previous two novels were. But there is more to Tigerman than just the adventure novel aspect of it. It’s a clever mix of good writing and pulp action with a fierce emotional core.

The island of Mancreu itself is a fantastic creation. Described as ‘a double arc, the shape of a seagull sketched by a child’, where ‘along the concave edges, mountains reared out of the restive water of the Arabian Sea’, it is inhabited by an ‘unbothered ethnic jumble of Arab and African and Asian, with the inevitable admixture of Europeans.’ Currently in a strange stasis, Mancreu is meant to be evacuated, deemed too dangerous to let be. At some point in it’s history, a Franco-Dutch chemical company set up an industrial plant on the island’s dry, unsheltered south side, where they found caverns of fresh water deep below the surface. They saw these as a boon to their excavations, pumping out the water to quench the thirst of their workers. When faced with tonnes of chemical waste, they did the obvious and simply filled the now-empty caverns with by-products of the chemical plant, ‘until one day in early 2004 the ground shook and the tectonics changed, and magma rose under the caverns.’

All the toxins below the surface turned into a ‘brimstone oven’ that ‘cooked and boiled, and in its fiery heart new, strange compounds were birthed and recombined. Dismal substances unknown and unimagined steamed in the deep, and seeped and stained through cracks toward the surface, ever upward into a huge chasm.;. Eventually, a toxic balloon rose from the ground, a membrane of earth stretching tight to hold the strange brew in, until it was penetrated by a ploughing farmer, causing an explosion and a warm mist that made everyone itch spread across the island.

That first Discharge Cloud stripped half the island of its pines and shrubs, and rippled the white stones of the town like waxworks too close to a flame. The second Cloud was harmless to humans but caused the death of rodents and the valleys of Mancreu were ‘filled with the stench of dead marmots’. The third Cloud caused fish to change sex and provoked humans into mad lust which seemed at first to be a ‘very good party’, until the children born of that lust were found to be unable to speak - the entire part of their brains that dealt with language was missing. The toxic mixture below the surface continued to mutate, and xenobiologists arrived to ascertained that the process had created protozoa that were adapting minerals into fuel for the continuous chemical reactions, bugs that may well spread into the rest of the ocean, changing the seascape and eventually the world entirely. To stop this from happening, Mancreu has been declared a ‘UNO-WHO Interventional Sacrifice Zone, a pace so wretchedly polluted that it must be sterilised by fire’. The deadline for this sterilisation remained on hold. Many left, but many others remained on Mancreu, believing in the local version of Inshallah - ‘Kswah Swah’ - what happens, happens.

On an ordinary day, as Lester and the boy are at their usual haunt, Shola’s cafe is attacked by a group of armed men. Lester is able to intervene during the attack by wielding a custard tin with great skill, but not before a friend’s life is lost in the skirmish. Unsettled and unwilling to accept his friend’s senseless death, Lester is adamant to get to the bottom of the attack and the boy is entirely enamoured by the idea of Lester as a hero, wanting to be his sidekick: ‘Investigate! Unassuming sergeant for fallen empire by day! Foolhardy boy companion!’ he exclaims in his excitement, his hilarious speech patterns mimicking both comic book dialogue and internet speak. Those are his two primary sources for learning English (and also, it seems, navigating life), which pepper his dialogue with a constantly entertaining smatter of phrases like ‘WTF!’, ‘You are full of win!’, ‘We pwn!’ and ‘Hashtag SatNavFail!’. The boy is also a bit of an enigma, never even revealing his name other than to call himself Robin to Lester’s Batman. But he is certain about one thing: ‘we should fight crime’, he declares, ‘That is what we should do’.

But Lester isn’t certain he can save Mancreu - he isn’t even certain he can save the boy, but he’s willing to try, though he admits, ‘you didn’t know whether you were the hero or not until the end’. But Lester goes ahead with the plan and be a ‘man with a silly mask on his head’ even though in the boy’s comic book’s ‘it would be something more, something strange and awful and powerful’. In Mancreu though, there was just the boy and Lester creating Tigerman, the hero of the island and ‘there were no old, dead gods or mad scientists involved, just tape and glue and scissors.’

Things escalate fast, and Mancreu descends into riots and fires that do not seem like they can be contained by just one man in a scary costume. Sure, Lester is a soldier, but he’s also made vulnerable by his paternal love for the boy and when things turn out to be further complicated than they seemed, it is clear that no one will escape unscathed. ‘In these stories,’ says the boy about his comics, ‘if you wanted to be the hero you had to stand alone, but when you were alone was also when you might get eaten by the monster.’

Chances of the monsters winning on Mancreu are fairly high. There’s a great deal about the island that is hidden, secret and lurking dangerously around the coast - it’s not just the ground that is unstable. Illegal activities abound - smuggling, shady deals conducted by the Black Fleet tethered outside of legal lines off the coastline of the island, organs for sale - many things that Lester has previously turned a blind eye to, until he chooses to be the hero the boy wants him to be. It seems the semi-retired sergeant will be both the hero Mancreu needs & deserves - a creature made of riot gear and war paint in tiger stripes and snarls, a gas mask and a utility belt, desperation and love. ‘To be a father you’re going to put on a mask and be a monster?’ asks White Raoul the scrivener and a sort of local shaman who has ‘God inside him like the ringer in a bell’. ‘Once, one time’ replies Lester, ‘to show him a win. A world where sometimes someone does fix it. Doesn’t just walk away’. Doesn’t just sit and stare into space, and give up, and die by inches.’

Tigerman is melancholic, ferocious and alternately sad and exciting. Which is, in turn, just like being a parent. Of course, Harkaway makes you work for this - he always has. His work has never pandered to a lazy reader: there is fantastic control over language but with great twisting sentences packed with meaning, ideas that force you to look at your world differently, hijinks at their best and complex humanity. With Tigerman, Harkaway leads you to realise just what it means to be a parent, to love entirely and unselfishly: ‘To do the job right was something else, older and different and patient and endlessly enduring, something which got stronger the more it was clawed and scratched, which bounded and uplifted and waited delightedly to be surpassed. which knew and understood and did not shy away from the understanding that there would be pain. Which could accept shattering, could assemble itself, could stand taller than before’.