The Pursuit of William Abbey

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I was ecstatic when Orbit sent me this because I knew this was going to be a solid read that I would really enjoy. I was totally right! I read Touch by Claire North a few years ago and was blownaway by the detail of the world and what was explored. This book even had a call-back to other Claire North novels! It was such an interesting read and I am so happy I got to read it early. My opinions are my own and were not influenced by receiving this book from Orbit.

The premise of this book is what hooked me on the story initally. I am going to put the official synopsis here because I think it did a great job of summing the story up.

South Africa in the 1880s. A young and naive English doctor by the name of William Abbey witnesses the lynching of a local boy by white colonists. As the child dies, his mother curses William.

William begins to understand what the curse means when the shadow of the dead boy starts following him across the world. It never stops, never rests. It can cross oceans and mountains. And if it catches him, the person he loves most in the world will die.

The fantasy elements of the story were very original and interesting. William also becomes a truth-speaker from the curse, unable to stop the truth of other’s hearts from bursting from his lips whenever the shadow is near. The format was him telling his story to a nurse named Sister Ellis, while he is a doctor in a WWI hospital. The life-story component made the novel seem really fast-paced as his life was being told very fast,but the actual story was very slow and steady.

The mystery did take a few hundred pages to start being solved, but in those pages North’s world-building and story-telling really shined. Abbey’s perspective felt real and even when he made the wrong decisions the outcomes were always interesting. by virtue of the life-story format as in life, many people are introduced as unimportant side characters, but then blossom into full supporting characters in William’s life. He travels the world and every where he went the descriptions of the world were very vivid and showcased a snapshot of what life was life at the turn of the century. He travels to every inhabited continent and meets people from every walk of life.

The fantasy components leave room for North’s social commentary about how truth is always what people choose to believe and the late 1800’s is the perfect time because it was the height of the British Commonwealth and racism and classism was running rampant through the world. It also was conveniently a time of modern inventions like trains and telegrams, which allow William to outrun his shadow.

There were some elements in this book that would qualify as horror and the ending sequence of the book was quite dark and morose. I believe North is meaning to show the worst of humanity and how far some people will do to learn the truth, but for me it came off as almost unbelievable. There were decisions made by ordinary people to throw a mother out of a carriage in the middle of nowhere because she was “crazy” and the authorities are shown to be really corrupt, enough to arrest an entire family on the whim of a group of powerful people.

Finally the ending, while revealing everything, did end on a particularly weak note. It felt like this book that was slow-burning and so enjoyable, just went out with not even a fizzle. I needed a few more pages explaining more about the world during the war and why he was telling Sister Ellis the story, beyond her asking him to.

My complaints about this book are quite minor and since I enjoyed this book so much in the first 400 pages, I can ignore the final 20. I am very relieved that I enjoyed this book as much as I did Touch because I have The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August on my Buzzwordathon TBR, which I will be posting soon. I now need to read all of North’s other books if they are all this good. Who is you favourite author who you think is not talked about enough? Leave a comment down below. Happy Reading!

4.5 stars
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Dr. William Abbey’s trouble is threefold. First, he is a mediocre doctor at best in 1884. Much better at diagnosing disease than curing it. Second, he falls in love with a woman above his station, leading to debts and eventually exile to South Africa. While there, he watches the execution by fire of a young native boy, without comment. The boy’s mother curses the doctor for not stepping in to save her son. This leads to his third trouble, the Pursuit of William Abbey by the shade of the murdered boy. When the boy touches the doctor, one-by-one those the doctor loves most are killed. Dr. Abbey also now has the ability to read the inner thoughts of other nearby men. This ability attracts the attention of the British government, who have found others with his affliction and see him as a useful asset—rather than a broken man.

The Pursuit of William Abbey is a thought-provoking historical fiction slash horror slash espionage thriller. It is definitely a plot you have not seen before. The language used is perfect for this slow-boil of a novel moving steadily to an unknown conclusion as the boy chases the doctor around the world. My only complaint was that it had some parts in the middle where the pace might have been a bit too slow. Otherwise, if you are looking for something completely original, this book is a great choice. 4 stars!

Thanks to Orbit Books and NetGalley for a copy in exchange for my honest review.
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I’m convinced: it’s literally impossible for Claire North to write a bad book. I think she’s just genuinely incapable of anything less than excellence. When she writes a sentence, it just comes out good. Every single time. Of this I am certain. Alternatively, there’s the much more mundane and likely scenario: she’s very, very good at proofing, has a wonderful editor and team behind her, and has honed her craft over many years and novels. However her frankly gorgeous writing originates, the result is the same: yet another brilliant novel being gifted to the world.

The plot is a fascinating mix of intrigue, social issues, and politics – all set on top of a deadly game of tag. The titular William Abbey has been cursed with the shadow of young boy who was burned to death by a mob as Abbey looked on. The shadow follows him at a shuffle… slow, but implacable. When the shadow reaches him, it uses him as a conduit to jump to the person he loves most and kill them. And then… it begins its journey again. Abbey must constantly be on the move in order to stay ahead of the shadow and protect the few friends he has remaining.

As the shadow approaches, Abbey gains a particular ability: to see into the hearts and minds of those around him. To discern and understand the truths by which they live. To understand the essence of what motivates them, their heart’s desire, their deepest and most closely-held secrets. The lines between Abbey and those around him blur until he becomes more of a mirror than a man. Their truths become his, and he cannot shut them out. The closer the shadow is to him, the stronger his compulsion towards truth becomes until he’s literally unable to cease speaking the truths of those around him. This is what ultimately lands him in trouble: truth-speakers are highly valued by the international espionage community, and he soon finds himself under the control of a group called The Nineteen and in the employ of the British Crown.

‘They interviewed me for two days before I began to dream my neighbours’ dreams again. Waking in the middle of the night, it occurred to me that this would be a good time to rock madly on the end of my bed. To howl. To march through the London streets looking for a fight. To get immensely drunk, find a brothel, visit old friends, write offensive letters to ancient, half-forgotten adversaries. Smash glass. Pray. Langa comes. He comes. He comes. I just lay there, wide awake, and understood that I was a prisoner in a gilded cage, and that my life would be spent running, and violating the hearts of men, and I did nothing until the morning came.’

With their hands and eyes guiding his actions, what ensues is a tale of treachery, betrayal, and self-reflection. Abbey is forced to face that he, too, is part of the machine that killed that boy at the Cape. He, too, is perpetuating this with every action he performs for the crown. As he goes on to meet other truth-speakers and sees the truth of their stories and backgrounds, he’s forced to reevaluate his choices. He’s duplicitous, sly, and does his best to support the things he believes in despite his circumstances. He becomes involved with libertine groups, vying for voice and representation. He falls in love with a woman who cannot love him in return. He looks into others and sees himself through their eyes.

As Abbey searches for a cure, a way to stop this shadow, his road in fact takes him back to the place he was originally cursed. On the Cape, when he finally tracks down the daughter of the woman who cursed him, she makes it clear that his curse is exactly what he deserved and no less. He is selfish in his desire to be free and has learned nothing. By removing the shadow, all he is seeking to do is that for which he and all the white colonizers are guilty of: assuming that the native population of Africa exists solely to serve him. “You just know black woman put shadow on you, black boy follow you, black woman forgive you. We – in your story. You do not know our story. You do not hear our story of when white men came and killed my brother. You do not see. Want everything to serve you. I will not. I will not serve you,” she says, as she sends Abbey along his way.

North’s prose weaves imagery and thoughts with seemingly-effortless grace and precision. Each sentence connects to the sentence before and after it. Paragraphs are merely one piece of the whole. It is almost impossible to pick apart a chapter; every line of this book is wholly integrated into the ones around it. I adore this style of writing, and I find that it helps me feel fully submerged within the atmosphere and story. North often utilizes a stream-of-consciousness style narrative to describe the overwhelming deluge of thoughts and emotion Abbey experiences. This is supremely effective, and brings forward the unique cadence of each person Abbey interacts with. It additionally serves to set these portions away from the standard narration without breaking flow or causing interruption. Where some authors might rely on formatting or italics, North uses style. In The Pursuit of William Abbey, North further pushes the mold by reordering events outside their chronological progression and presenting us with a highly unreliable narrator. This is a true piece of ergodic literature, requiring attention and effort on the part of the reader to untangle the story as it is presented.

The one aspect of this narrative that didn’t work as well for me was the pacing. Although I did enjoy the social commentary present within it and thoroughly enjoyed each page of writing, I found that the first half of the book seemed to flow a bit more slowly than I might have hoped. It’s not until the 50% mark that the underlying plot comes to the forefront. Prior to that, it feels like a series of small vignettes; although they are lovely to read and consume, I still felt that I was missing the meat of the book. Fortunately, after that juncture, the book immediately sped up and brought us back to the overarching narrative with a pleasant swiftness and efficiency that made the second half of the book a quick and lively read. Once the narrative hit its stride, I was fully engaged and eager to see how things would pan out.

North dives deep into the consequences of racism and colonialism. If it does not, perhaps, have the immediacy and brutality found in Queen of the Conquered, it nevertheless plays a pivotal role in the book. It doesn’t fully permeate, but it doesn’t shy away from addressing the consequences of the British empire. Through the lens of Abbey’s own experiences, we witness the double standards the brown-skinned people of Africa are held to. Justice is skewed, arbitrary, and horrifically racist. In fact, this is in large part the origin of his shadow: when a young black boy, Langa, was discovered kissing the daughter of a wealthy white man, the town immediately cried scandal and dragged him to his death.

‘Nor was the condition of the Bantu peoples within Natal or the neighbouring Boer states slavery, for lo – if a white man killed a black man, beat a black child to death, assaulted a black woman or burnt their property, they would duly be taken before the court of law. There, guarded by white men, they would be judged by their white peers, their plea considered by a white judge, and there might even upon some occasion be a fine passed down, if the case was considered severe. If matters got that far. Of course, should a black man kill a white man, it was unlikely that the wandering lawmen of the wild grasslands would have anything to say on the matter. The white men would come with rifle and rope, and before all his family they would most likely torture that same black man to death, leaving his mutilated body for crows. And if, incensed by this, his black neighbours turned against the white and drove the farmers from the land, impaling hand and head with spears hoarded in the secret places of the kraal, those bruised survivors of Boer or English stock would flee to Pretoria, Durban, Kimberley or the Cape and report on the feared uprising of the natives, and there would come marching with drum and Maxim gun all the queen’s horses and all the queen’s men, and the vultures would flock in from mountain and far-off withered perch to feast royally on a spread of flesh.’

The Pursuit of William Abbey is a fundamentally human book. It takes a slice of history and examines it through a lens of personal truths: the politicians who think themselves the epitome of righteousness, the priests who come closer to god even as they dehumanize anyone with different skin tones. These appear as true to these people, even if they are not perhaps objectively so. This is a study in morality and in the flawed ways we see ourselves. I highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys beautifully written, thoughtful novels focused on morality, history, and humanity. This is a slow, winding road of a book – some patience and willingness to untangle a twisted narrative will be needed. This is not a quick, easy weekend read… but it’s one that is gorgeous and rewarding. Dense, but delightful.
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Thank you to NetGellay and Orbit for providing me a eARC in exchange for an honest review of The Pursuit of William Abbey. Claire North has become the master of an invent setup and a thrilling pursuit blended with political conspiracy with vast reaching implications. The book is told by the titular William Abbey as he speaks his back story of his Curse to Sister Ellis. The first person viewpoint changes from time to time to Sister Ellis who provides the feedback of an outsider on the personality and condition of William Abbey. 

William Abbey was cursed by the Mother of a murdered boy and thus the pursuit begins. When the shadow of the dead boy touches William Abbey, the truth of his heart is revealed and someone he loves dies. William must stay well ahead of his unrelenting shadow, and as the shadow approaches him, William is able to tell of the truth of the heart of those around him. William is recruited as a British spy, and it is with this training that he learns of other "truth speakers"

My real fascination with this book came after having read over half of it. William has a philosophical conversation with Hirano, another truth speaker, about what it is to know the truth of someone else's heart, and what truth truly does to someone. Before this section of the book, the plot was flat, hard to follow, and slow. This is where things pick up, alliances are forged, and treachery abounds.

Ultimately, I always enjoy Claire North's writing.
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This was easily my most anticipated book of the year. Claire North is one of the few authors whose books instantly jump to the top of my TBR, and The Pursuit of William Abbey in no way disappointed my lofty expectations.

This novel marks the first time I can recall North using a framing device for the story, and it’s used to brilliant effect. A nurse near the front lines of WWI encounters the mysterious Dr. William Abbey, who shares with her his life’s story.

Dr. Abbey is cursed. He’s constantly pursued by his shadow, the ghost of a dead boy he saw murdered in South Africa. If his shadow touches him, the person he loves most will die. And as the shadow nears, Dr. Abbey begins to hear the truths of others’ hearts.

Each night while Dr. Abbey tells his story to the nurse, his shadow grows closer. Each night, Dr. Abbey loses a little more of his ability to lie, which in turn influences his story. We’re left to wonder how much of his early story is true and how much is altered to present himself in a favorable light. As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly truthful, making Dr. Abbey one of the more unique unreliable narrators I’ve encountered.

As always, North takes a single fascinating idea and explores it from every angle. Some characters see their shadow as a blessing, a way to stay close with a departed relative or use the power of truth seeking to their advantage. Others, like Dr. Abbey, see it as a curse. A constant danger to one’s sanity and loved ones.

And then there are those who seek to weaponize it. Wealthy nations can use truth seekers as the ultimate spies, forever a short train ride ahead of their shadow. “Civilized” truth seekers are applauded, while those from less affluent backgrounds are exploited.

North’s writing is brimming with anger for this exploitation, offering a scathing critique of capitalism, imperialism, and racism. It’s interesting how truth—widely considered to be a desirable, moral concept—can be used to fuel greed and destroy empathy. Our personal truths are rarely as objective as we believe. It is possible—even common—to believe contradictory things simultaneously. In today’s world where facts themselves can be seen as mutable weapons, the nature of “personal truths” resonates powerfully.

At times it felt like the story emphasized ideas at the expense of emotional investment in the characters. And yet, North has a talent for effortless characterization through dialogue, small mannerisms, and relatable motivations.

If truth is the primary theme of this story, love is a close second. Love keeps the truth seekers running from their shadows, drives how they form relationships, and shapes how they use their abilities. Love is both the axe hanging over their heads and their motivation to persevere. And like truth, it’s not a concept easily understood.

Of all North’s previous work, The Pursuit of William Abbey feels most similar to The Sudden Appearance of Hope. It mixes the fantastic with a hard look at our society, and will likely leave you grappling with the issues addressed long after you finish the last page. After all, there’s a reason Claire North was one of the select few writers initially approached to novelize Netflix’s Black Mirror.

If a story about the nature of truth, love, colonialism, and revenge sounds intriguing, consider giving this story a shot. It’s a powerful, brilliant critique of today’s society and a damn fine story.

You want to know my personal truth? I loved this book, and I hope you do too.
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As always, Claire knocks it out of the park. Gorgeous writing!

disclaimer: Claire's short stories have been featured in an anthology I edited.
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I was not the biggest fan of this, I just couldn't get into the story. Oh well, maybe her next book will be for me :) which stinks because I was a big fan of the first fifteen lives of henry august!
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William Abbey is a white man living in Victorian Era South Africa. A South Africa that is torn apart by white colonists and he's blind to the suffering surrounding him from the native Africans. Until he is cursed to see the truth in everyone's heart. The curse takes the shape of a boy who he watched on the sidelines as a mob burned him. Whenever that shadow of the boy reunites with him, someone he loves dies. So William Abbey has to run. All the time. This leads to him to become a spy for England. A selfish one who is not good at his job.

I love this book. I love that William Abbey starts being blind to other people's problems and ends up having a deep understanding for people. Because we also find out through him the stories of people surrounding him, the world feels alive with three-dimensional people. There is no all knowing person because everyone is scared of something. 

It's interesting when he meets people with the same curse as he and their conversations are only through using their powers. 

My one problem is that there are times when it did slow a bit. But when the pacing picks up then I had trouble putting down the book.
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Thank you Netgalley and Publishers for granting me early access to "The Pursuit of William Abbey".

I'm currently in the middle of a major move, and will definitely come back at a later time and write out a full review and rating. 

Thank you so much!
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I enjoyed the writing style which i found refined and somewhat elegant and I found the characters relatable and interesting but the story dragged for me, I do recommend the book to all fiction lovers
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Another beautifully written piece by North, although this might be the darkest of her novels that I've read.  The complexity of the story is enough to be so unique and engaging but not so much as to be difficult to enjoy.  I especially appreciated the span on the storyline - both across time and around the world - and thought the sheer diversity of the characters was absolutely wonderful.  

I received an ARC from the publisher through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.
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Thank you to the publisher, via NetGalley, for providing me with an arc for review. This has in no way influenced my opinion.
The concept of this book is so much more interesting than what is executed on the page. The idea of a character being cursed by a grieving mother, due to his lack of intervention in the torture and murder of her son, leading to him being followed forever by the spirit of the boy is fascinating. Add to that an espionage plot,  Abbey can see the truth in others the closer the boy comes and that the nearer the boy is the more imperiled Abbey's loved ones are - well, it is rich with material. 
The book is 400+ pages but reads like it is much longer - the pacing is off and the character of William Abbey isn't a good conduit into his own story. I enjoyed several of North's other books, but this is a miss for me.
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"There is the truth we tell ourselves, [...] and then there is the reality of the world as it is, and that is always harder to see. "

I enjoyed Claire North's earlier book "The Sudden Appearance of Hope", though felt it fall into the same trap as this one for me. Amazing idea, but an execution that just wasn't 5 stars for me. The Pursuit of William Abbey follows a 19th-century British man cursed because he witnessed a lynching of a young Black boy and did nothing to stop it. As the ghost of the murdered boy, Langa, follows him, he kills anyone the man (William Abbey) loves. He also allows Abbey to hear the unfiltered truth of anyone near me. So, a blessing and a curse, with some complications explained in further in the novel.

The writing style is refined and elegant, and the characters interesting -- I think my main issue is that this book is just LONG. the 450+ pages felt closer to 600 for me, so if you need a fast-paced read this might not be for you. However, if you like that literary, heavy expository style, you'll probably really enjoy this.

P.S. Thought its commentary on truth was particularly interesting, critical, and insightful -- much needed in the sort of "post-truth" world we're in right now.
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I requested an electronic advance copy of this book from NetGalley because the premise it's built on sounded fascinating, and I was delighted that the publisher approved my request. The premise here is that William Abbey, an Englishman who sees (and doesn't act in response to) a child killed by a white mob in Africa, is cursed by the child's mother. The shadow of her son will follow Abbey for the rest of his life, and any time the shadow catches up, the person Abbey loves most will die. In essence, Abbey is stuck in a deadly game of tag. 

There are some "rules" involved. First, Abbey is now a Truth-Teller. The closer the child's shadow gets, the more clearly Abbey will hear others' private truths and feel compelled to blurt them out. Second, the child's shadow travels at a steady pace, regardless of terrain. Abbey can buy himself time by using modern transportation to distance himself from the shadow, but eventually the shadow will catch up with him, unless he keeps moving.

Now, add two complications. First, Abbey isn't the only person who has been turned into a Truth-Teller by a curse—it turns out there are others like him. Second, the governments of many nations are on the hunt for "Truth-Tellers," who are exceptionally useful in resolving questions of guilt and acts of rebellion. The governments aren't necessarily looking for Truth-Tellers who will work with them voluntarily; they will imprison Truth-Tellers, if it serves their purpose.

That's the basic formula: one curse, two rules, two complications. It's potentially fascinating and nail-bitingly exciting, but the book never really hits its stride. Abbey can see into others, but not himself, so readers have a protagonist about whom they know relatively little and who remains partially occluded throughout the book. Also, the book is long (464 pages) and its pace is steady—a bit like the pace of the ever-approaching child's shadow. It's like driving at thirty-five without ever speeding up or slowing down.

The Pursuit of William Abbey is interesting (an over-used word, but an appropriate one in this case). Unfortunately, interesting isn't the same as engaging or engrossing. The reader's experience feels flattened.
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I love Claire North's books. They have unique perspectives with a beautiful style and flow. While I found the themes in book interesting, I just wasn't drawn in by the story. Certain sections were beautiful, and it is worth the read, but if you are a huge fan like me, temper your expectations a bit. You will probably enjoy it more if you do.
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This will definitely be popular with library patrons, but not with me. After starting this title, I realized this wasn't my cup of tea. Will move on to other titles!
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