Review: Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

Not long ago I read Nick Harkaway’s fascinating novel The Gone-Away World and thought about it long after turning the final page. When I saw his new book, Tigerman, on the shelves of my local library, I jumped at the chance to read it.

Tigerman takes place on the fictional island of Mancreu, a remote outpost doomed by buried chemical waste. Something new and deadly has bloomed from the seething chemicals, and the powers that be have determined the only way to keep the threat from spreading is to bomb Mancreu out of existence. In the meantime, a fleet of sinister vessels has gathered in the waters nearby, taking advantage of the island’s hopeless status to carry out nefarious activities with impunity.

Many inhabitants have fled the coming destruction, but life on the island continues, overseen by the last remaining representative of Britain, Sargent Lester Harris. His job is to watch over Brighton House, long since abandoned by the diplomats who once lived there, and steer clear of any controversy until it’s time to leave for good.

Lester has spent most of his military career in dangerous combat situations. Strolling the streets of Mancreu, he finds friendship and a sort of peace, even as he knows his time there is limited. The fate of one person in particular weighs heavily on him as the inevitable end approaches: a nameless teenage boy. The boy appears to have no family or direct supervision, he comes and goes at will, hanging out in the same cafe as Lester and reading endless comic books. Although he knows nothing about the boy’s family or home life, Lester has permitted himself to imagine a future in which he adopts the boy and saves him from the life of a stateless refugee.

Everything changes when armed men launch a brutal assault on the cafe. Lester saves the boy’s life and is gradually drawn into a plan to avenge the attack’s victims by taking on the role of superhero. Tigerman is born.

Harkaway takes what could have been a standard superhero origin story and invests it with both bittersweet humor and real emotional power. Lester is so achingly real that by the end of the book I felt I knew him completely. It’s difficult to say more without getting into spoiler territory.

Genre: Post-colonial superhero tragicomedy

Read it if: You loved The Gone-Away World; you like your superhero stories with a side of Graham Greene; you have always dreamed of dressing up as a tiger and exacting justice.

Skip it if: You enjoy dumping toxic waste on remote islands; you are easily paralyzed with despair by the cruelty and injustice in the world; you are looking for a handy guide to becoming a superhero.

Movie-worthy: This could be a spectacular movie if it was handled well. The action sequences could be amazing, but explaining the plot twists might be trickier.

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