Lester Ferris, sergeant of the British Army, is a good man in need of a rest. He’s spent a lot of his life being shot at, and Afghanistan was the last stop on his road to exhaustion. He has no family, he’s nearly forty, burned out, and about to be retired.
The island of Mancreu is the ideal place for Lester to serve out his time. A former British colony in legal limbo, it is soon to be destroyed because of its very special version of toxic pollution. Of course, that also makes Mancreu perfect for shady business, hence the Black Fleet of illicit ships lurking in the bay: listening stations, offshore hospitals, money laundering operations, drug factories and deniable torture centres. None of which should be a problem, because Lester’s brief is to sit tight and turn a blind eye.
But Lester Ferris has made a friend: as brilliant, internet-addled street kid with a comic-book fixation who will need a home when the island dies – who might, Lester hopes, become an adopted son. In the name of paternal love, Lester Ferris will do almost anything. Now, as Mancreu’s small society tumbles into violence, the boy needs Lester to be more than just an observer. He needs him to be a hero.
Tigerman is the first Harkaway book I’ve read, and given the fascinating, fantastic blend of literary themes with genraic stylings (this is essentially a meditation on fatherhood and the difficulties of the father-son relationship, but also a superhero novel making reference to Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis and more), it’s going to prove far from the last. That’s not to say it is without faults, but we’ll get to those!
The central figure of Tigerman is Lester Ferris, washed-up sergeant, stereotypically British abroad in some ways (the duffer making friends with the locals by a genial attitude) and in others still very much the military man (his attitude to orders, and the emphasis laid on the ways his actions fit into the role of “sergeant”). He’s a fascinating character of many layers; Harkaway doesn’t let any one layer come to the surface at the expense of all others, rather letting them mingle beautifully, but with the loneliness and its consequences (his desire to be father to the boy, his dawning realisation of his affection for Kaiko Inoue) a theme running throughout. The boy is a similarly multilayered character, and a mystery to be solved by Ferris; his seeming self-sufficiency, the mystery of whether he is actually in need of a father at all, and his strange anonymity (the only name he gives in the book is “Robin”). Unfortunately he is also a native of Macreu; this, alongside the rather two-dimensional characterisation of the rest of the indigenes, gives the impression that the people of Mancreu are mysteries to be solved by Ferris.
Tigerman compounds that with its dreadful representation of women; Kaiko Inoue is sexually interested in Ferris, highly intelligent, highly capable, and displays very little actual character; “the Witch”, the only doctor on the island, is characterised as a witch, an enigma and strange; and the only other named woman is, in fact, unable to speak and has no awareness of the world. Harkaway’s beautiful characterisation of Ferris just seems to vanish with the rest of the cast; even told from Ferris’ point of view (limited third-person), we should see more character in the Mancreux or less in the other immigrants.
The plot is part of the reason for this patchy characterisation; Tigerman relies on its mysteries to work, and while that would be fine if some of the Mancreux were strange and slightly apart from the world, that they’re all portrayed as basically impossible to understand is a real blow to the novel. Harkaway builds the superhero elements of the novel fantastically, with the development of both Tigerman’s actions and the legends they unintentionally create brilliantly portrayed, and the Black Fleet stays an invisible-but-known menacing and silent presence for most of the novel, but the elements of the plot centring on the boy or on Kaiko are simply poorly anchored.
That isn’t to deny the book readability. This is a nearly 400 page novel that has a breakneck pace and some amazingly vivid writing; the sections focused on Ferris’ actions as Tigerman, his going beyond his limits and doing almost superhuman feats, are a real joy as the prose speeds up, delving into Ferris’ mind, and his response to his own actions while also really laying down the nature of those actions as something that plugs into the same place in the mind as great comics can. Similarly, the depiction of a culture lazily existing under a threat of (induced) apocalypse so old as to have lost its terror would be fantastic if it didn’t rely on and prop up stereotypes of the global South; Harkaway writes the stereotype beautifully, but I wish he’d been willing to avert it. The twist at the close of the novel is, in hindsight, obvious but was completely unexpected to this reader, making it the best kind of twist; Harkaway laid clues down throughout Tigerman, gently and brilliantly, often without the reader realising he is even doing it, before making a fantastic reveal.
In the end, Tigerman lets itself down; slightly more depth to the characters who aren’t Ferris, and slightly less stereotypical a portrayal of the society of Mancreu, would have made Harkaway’s novel a true work of genius. As it is, it’s a very solipsistic meditation on fatherhood and a very readable, fantastic superhero thriller well-combined.