The Pursuit of William Abbey

Written by Claire North
Review by K. M. Sandrick

Physician William Abbey is cursed by the mother of a Zulu boy who is beaten until bone from his broken arm protrudes from skin, then tied to a baobab tree, doused with paraffin, and set aflame. After his dead body is carried away, a shadow remains. The shadow indicts Abbey for failing to speak against the brutality or tend the boy while he lay suffering. It transforms the physician into a truth-speaker and stalks him wherever he goes.

As a truth-speaker, Abbey is compelled to report what he sees in others’ hearts, but can never see into his own. He consequently makes an ideal spy. Pressed into service by operatives known as the Nineteen, his first assignment, the 1884 Berlin Conference that divided the continent of Africa into 50 countries in order to keep peace in Europe, at least for a few years. Later, after he betrays his country, runs from the grasp of Professor Albert Wilson and his experiments on the brains of truth-speakers, and seeks his own cures for the condition, Europe is engaged in the Great War, and Abbey is at the bedside of Wilson’s son near the frontlines.

The Pursuit of William Abbey is a journey into hearts of darkness. Its pace is relentless; action is compulsive. Language ranges from poetic to frenetic, pounding beats of staccato repetition. The exploration of motivation is moving and insightful. As Abbey says, “To live in a state of truth, to truly know the world as it is, rather than as you wish to perceive it, is frightening. Terrifying.” Indeed.