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What immortal hand or eye...,
This review is from: Tigerman (Hardcover)
Lester Ferris (Sergeant) is the last vestige of British officialdom on the former island colony of Mancreu, which lies in the ocean somewhere east of Aden and is to be demolished shortly to save the world from a potential "extinction level event" involving toxic waste and mutant bacteria. In the meantime, the place is a legal No-Man's-Land, and taking advantage of this, governments, security services and various shades of crook have rolled up in ships ("the Fleet") to do whatever they wish, outside the reach of the law. The Fleet is ignored, though everyone knows it's there: "Round and around and around it went, and he chose not to look too closely because if he did he must, inevitably, see things which were invisible."
Against this background, the book follows the relationship between Lester and the Boy. Having seen what happens to refugees displaced from their homes, Lester wishes to adopt the Boy and give him a better life. But first he needs to be sure that the Boy has no-one else. Of course he can't ask outright, for fear of the damage to their friendship, so Lester starts investigating.
At around the same time, a group of men come through the door of a bar one day with guns and kill another man, changing Mancreu for ever. It seems that as the island enters its last days, law and decency is breaking down ("Everyone on the island walked within bounds out of sheer habit, respected property and persons and decency because they knew those things were important. But there was no compulsion any more...") and the values of the Fleet are coming ashore. Will Lester, as the sole police presence, be able to stop the disorder, find out the truth about the Boy and solve the murder?
This is a funny, touching and endearing novel with many twists. It has harsh things to say about the state of the world, from "humanitarian" interventions that are "contradictory and insincere" to the conflict in Afghanistan, which Lester was part of. There were, Lester notes, "soldiers here whose great-grandfathers had fought the Pashtuns in 1918, and the fathers of these men had fought them before that in 1879, and their fathers in 1840. The Brits shared with the locals a tacit understanding that nothing done here would make any difference..." Lester may, you'd think, see his time on Mancreu in the same way, but still, like a Graham Green character, he does his best and seeks some kind of tarnished redemption even in the face of those who can only tear down: "No one in the wider world seemed to do anything constructive, no one built or mended. It was lawyers, guns and tax-avoidance out there." So he acts, donning a superhero outfit ("Tigerman!") to tackle crooks - unarmed, of course, because superheroes don't use guns.
Despite the comic book colour and imagery ("We are made from awesome!" shouts the Boy at one point) Harkaway seems to be a taking a much darker view here than in his last book, Angelmaker, where he notes that the essentials of life are "a girl, a gun and a good lawyer". That book was much more of a gleeful spree than is this. Lester is too absorbed in events on Mancreu and in puzzling over his past to do much about finding himself a girl; there is no law on Mancreu to begin with; but there are lots of guns, and once those habits of decency and respect begin to break down, they start being used.
In all, it is a a gripping, suspense-filled novel with a shocking twist which will make you go back and look at the story in a new light. My only reservation is that, having done that, I'm not quite convinced by the plot. We're in a world of mirrors here, of wheels-within-wheels, or treachery and bluff, and it's understandable that some things are unexplained, but still, I found myself asking whether - even accepting all that - the story actually worked.
But still, it's great read, and fun getting to the point where you can ask yourself those questions.
Long live Mancreu: Kswah swah!