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The Pursuit of William Abbey

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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 the 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.

420 pages, Paperback

First published November 12, 2019

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About the author

Claire North

24 books3,267 followers
Claire North is actually Catherine Webb, a Carnegie Medal-nominated young-adult novel author whose first book, Mirror Dreams, was written when she was just 14 years old. She went on to write seven more successful YA novels.

Claire North is a pseudonym for adult fantasy books written by Catherine Webb, who also writes under the pseudonym Kate Griffin.

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5 stars
563 (22%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 388 reviews
Profile Image for Beata.
697 reviews1,058 followers
April 26, 2020
My first novel by Ms North, but definitely I'll read more of her books as William Abbey's story turned out to be a powerful and very much unsettling one. A young doctor who in the 1880s finds himself practising in South Africa, witnesses a hineous crime committed on a black boy and remains just an observer. The boy's mother curses William and from now on he is pursued by the shadow of the boy all over the world and tragic revenge is taken when the shadow manages to catch up with William.
This is not a comfort read as through William Abbey's eyes we are shown the world of politics and the British Empire stripped of any sentimentalities or glamour. This is the world of real politics, of families for whom emotions are unknown and of the guilt and remorse which come too late.
*Many thanks to Claire North, Little, Brown Book Group UK and NetGalley for arc in exchange for my honest review.*
Profile Image for Phrynne.
3,114 reviews1,978 followers
November 16, 2019
Another good book from this very talented author. Not my personal favourite but still very good indeed. As happens a lot in her books the main character, William Abbey, is being pursued all around the world. His pursuer is the shade of a dead boy and the results if he gets caught are not good.

So, points to the author for the clever story and the way it makes the reader think hard about what is going on all the time. Points too for the amazing amount of research which must have gone into all the scenes of war, of medical treatments, of travel and even of clothes and food. This is an historical fiction book set between 1880 and 1917 and North gets the atmosphere just right. And of course she writes beautifully.

So the reason why it is not making my favourites list? Firstly I did not make any emotional connection with William Abbey and was therefore not really concerned what happened to him. I felt that I was intrigued and yet detached throughout the whole book. And then the ending was okay but not the best and left me feeling a little deprived.

It is still a good book. Maybe after the highs of Touch and The End of the Day I was expecting too much.
December 6, 2019
4.5 stars

I was very excited to have the opportunity to review this title from the moment it appeared on my radar.

Like an endless sea, this remarkable work of fiction does not cease to ever end in scope and engagement as one reads through the 400+ pages. Hopes, dreads, dreams, and desires of a lifetime of every facete imaginable will be touched on in this journey of The Pursuit of William Abbey. Not a country in the world, not a shore unexplored, no historical events within its premise missed, nor a stone left unturned will bereft the reader the enduring, yet fleeting travels of the haunted soul residing within the pages of this novel. But William Abbey is not the only one on this voyage, this race from death to save loved ones and humanity. We are part in this effort too. Will it be enough?

Evil comes in all shapes, forms, and sizes. Sometimes it can be experienced with either our senses or remain inherently hidden deep down in our souls while our conscience turns a blind eye. The famous parody of the devil and the angel on the shoulder whispering sweetly to garner persuasion is a classic. Though it isn't always our actions that get us in trouble. In the case of William Abbey, it was his inaction that was his fatal mistake.

Born in London as the youngest of seven children during the reign of Queen Victoria, William chose to become a doctor against the whole and sound moral path set out by his traditional parents. It was an exciting time to be a part of the studies in medicine with the rise of knowledge in science and technology, though in the field and on the streets, it looked a lot more like dread and suffering as William finds out soon.

"But the dying will tell their stories. Prostitutes who could not feed themselves, let alone their children, torn from the ward to another night's work not hours after birthing a child. Mangled limbs crushed on factory floors; women with faces ripped in two by flesh-gnawing sulfur. Children coughing tar from the chimney stacks; bursts of the pestilence that swept through eight-to-a-ton tenements faster than a man could sneeze. Faced with this, I longed to escape my patients entirely and the reality of their suffering. When I had money to spend, I spent it on bad drink with Plender and flowers for beautiful, unobtainable women, and it was my pursuit of the latter that banished me from England."

Now banished in Natal, Africa, in 1884, William finds himself in a brothel that spawns every disease imaginable when he witnesses the lynching of a Zulu child by the white and powerful elite outside in the town. The fantasies of becoming a hero in the event to intervene and save the boy did not even cross his mind, never even occurred to him. A coward act he regrets for the rest of his life in the chase by the ghost boy who was killed and whose mother spoke a curse most powerful.

"She spoke in isiZulu, or at least I thought she did. She did not move as she spoke, nor do I think she blinked. She did not drop the knife wet with her son's blood, or point or howl, or catch the moonlight in her fingers. She did not laugh, nor fall down in a fit, or foam at the mouth. She looked me in the eye, and with her gift she put the curse upon me, and I knew it, and could not name it, felt cold of it crawl up from my feet to my ankles, ankles to my knees, all the way up my body if the earth had grown fingers of icy bone that now pushed with will alone into knuckle-deep hollows of my flesh.”

“Then it was done, and both her stare and the ice let me go, and I realized that my whole life I had known nothing of anything and that only truth I had my heart was ignorance."

From this day forward, Langa comes for him with his limp, injured boy shuffle and seeks to kill everyone William has ever truly loved. Creepy, scary, unremorseful he will follow William to the end of the world to never let him forget what he has done by not doing anything and he terrorizes him with the insurmountable heavy-weighted truth of world corruption and the black hearts of its inhabitants.

The novel proceeds to travel around the world as William tries to outrun his pursuer. Along the way, he meets violence, death at close call countless times, and experiences hardships and loss, but there never will be rest for the wicked. A vicious cycle of corruption ensues and never ceases to run out no matter where in the world he is.

Sweeping over all continents, William can see the truth of people's hearts and he is not alone. A circle of other Truth-speakers becomes known and 'enslaved' by governments to use as spies and play out political intrigues to add to the plot of the novel. Themes in socialism, communism, anarchism, and nationalism add to the turmoil and world unrest, historically exploring moral character, (in-)justice, (in-)equality, liberty, and freedom. Readers will encounter disasters like the San Francisco earthquake, mining accidents like at Rolling Hill, worker strikes and poor immigrant working conditions in the early days of the US, tunnel collapses, opium trades, the discovery of radium and on and on the range of international incidents and intrigue continue as the novel goes on.

There is much to be learned from the wisdom imbued by the story. It isn't all a negative endeavor. The scenes are set in-depth, richly against the plot backdrop. William's character serves as a reflection of human flaws wretched deep and the arduous growth it takes to see openly and be open-hearted to love, to be vulnerable and to judge and hate less.

As William isn't immune to feelings despite his distaste at the truth of the world, he longs to love and be loved. He meets his match and she is a Truth-speaker as well, but fate will not allow for their love to commence, or does it? With a race to the cure of all evil, it is left in the stars for the reader to find out what happens.

Many interesting characters and historical figures enter the plot and leave their footprint on this path of destruction. Some are brilliant and insightful, others are as evil as they come. Multicultural aspects feel authentic and whisk the reader through exotic, intoxicating places that leave the flavor of wonderful travel behind. As the saying goes:

"That's the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet."

-Jhumpa Lahiri

Overall this novel has a tremendous reach in complexity, is a remarkable book to read and an even greater feat to write. It is difficult to describe it with high and low points or arcs as it is mostly steadfast and concise. North's writing holds strong throughout and is lyrical at the same time. The thought-provoking content will captivate and allure to the brilliant wisdom within. A 'truth-speaking' if you will with the insight of heart and mind, border lining exceptionalism in talent and understanding of human nature. We all can use a slice of it.

If you enjoy unique, thought-provoking novels, that hold adventure within its pages, then this one is written for you. Most likely, I will read this book again to get even more out of it, as I'm sure more wisdom has been hidden in these powerful pages and passages.

I hope you'll enjoy it too.


I received a digital arc from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

* quotes taken from an advanced reader copy might be subject to change.

More of my reviews here:
Through Novel Time & Distance
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books3,846 followers
December 16, 2020
For a historical fantasy, it starts very slow and stays very close to its historical roots, from the Boer War and onward toward the first World War, being very English but then, again, not at all. It's an indictment and a commentary in all the best ways.

But then it becomes fantastical in a way that I'm very familiar with when it comes to Claire North's writing. Slow and steady and exquisitely detailed always eventually becomes a huge rebellion/revolt/epic-tragedy. It's almost crazy to think that ANY otherwise slow-moving and lush historical tale could go... so BIG. But it does. And it is wonderful.

Fans of Claire North know that she takes a Big Idea, a fantasy or SF rule, and runs with it while drilling down deep into the full implications of it.

In this one, it's Love. The pursuit is one of a curse, a shadow, that steadily moves toward the cursed, eventually always killing the ones he or she loves most in the world.

So why not join the spy corps, keep on the move, and never love?

It sounds good on paper. But of course, life and long life, at that, makes this a very dicey proposition. Scary and sad and very, very tragic.

I will mention that this one is a really hard one to get through. If you're looking for something light, stay away from it. But if you want something that will tear your heart apart, look no farther.

Really gorgeous. But so very difficult, too.
Profile Image for Sarah-Hope.
1,030 reviews76 followers
August 20, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Justine.
1,103 reviews294 followers
March 9, 2021
Is love a curse or a blessing?

Like so many of North's books, The Pursuit of William Abbey is a love it or hate it book. Typical of North the writing is extremely dense, almost entirely narrative and with very little dialogue. At times it verges on stream of consciousness without actually tipping over, which lends a certain realistic quality to the idea that you are being told a complicated story extemporaneously by the person to whom it happened.

I thought the idea presented, that truth is individualized, relative and not absolute was interesting. North repeatedly makes the point that each of us casts ourselves the hero of our own story, so that even when we objectively commit a wrong, we are still convinced we are right. This dovetails nicely with the overarching themes in the book of love and revenge moving in constant circularity, chasing each other.

Dense, dark, beautifully written.

My heart is marble in my chest. My skin is stone, cleansed with rain. The cannon are thundering at the skies but haven't made a dent yet.
Profile Image for Nils | nilsreviewsit.
303 reviews442 followers
November 7, 2019
3.5 stars

‘The Great War had been coming for such a long time. It was born in the hearts of our ruling men the day they were held up in the crib and told they were blessed with a greatness that others could not share. It was nurtured when they saw their greatness challenged, and sought some way to prove their strength. Now it eats us whole.’
The Pursuit of William Abbey is a powerful historical fiction and also part fantasy novel by the award winning author, Claire North. As I’ve never read any books by North before but have always heard much praise for her narrative style, I was very intrigued to read this one. This book is described as ‘utterly though-provoking’, which I can say, I firmly agree with.

The book tells the story of William Abbey, a young English doctor, working during the 1800s, which was around the period when many countries were being colonised. William witnesses a young boy in South Africa being executed by a group of white colonists; he stands on the sidelines doing absolutely nothing to stop the atrocity and nothing to save the boy afterwards as he lay dying in his mother’s arms. In the wake of the mother’s wrath, she curses William. From that day forward the shadow of the dead boy relentlessly pursues him across the globe, and whenever it is near, William becomes a ‘truth-teller’, as he gains the ability to discover people’s inner thoughts and desires. The shadow must also never catch William, because when it does the person he loves most in the world will immediately die.

That premise alone instantly drew me in, I mean how could it not? Then in the first opening chapters we are introduced to a wartime nurse, who meets our main protagonist, William Abbey, whilst dealing with an overwhelming amount of severely injured soldiers, fresh from the battlefield. North hits you with vivid descriptions of the mess, the gore, and the decaying caused from soldiers with missing limbs, and infected wounds; the dead, the dying. The dramatic beginning certainly grabs your attention and I truly commend North for not shying away from the harrowing realities of warfare. The stark depiction also continues as William recounts the time of the boy’s execution, to the nurse, and describes his horrific burning in great detail. This was a particularly uncomfortable, and unsettling scene to see unfold, and it hit me quite emotionally. I respect North for again choosing not to sugar coat anything, which also worked perfectly to establish the central theme in the novel; the nature of truths. Although this may be a work of fiction, no-one can deny that these horrendous lynchings did take place in history, and no one can deny that many of those were solely because of prejudice, therefore these stories should also never be denied.

No matter what you feel about these scenes, North powerfully engraves these images in our minds, and they are images that should never be swept under a rug. We owe it to the people who suffered to know and remember the extent of their suffering, and I applaud North for bringing this to light. I also very much enjoyed North’s use of stream of consciousness during these scenes as it elegantly reflected the emotions of guilt and confusion that William wars against. He makes us question, should he have risked his life and reputation to save the boy? Does he deserve the curse or was he just as much a victim of circumstances?

A large majority of the novel then focuses on William Abbey running from the youth’s shadow in order to save those he holds dearest to him. From Berlin to Egypt to Ireland, and throughout the globe, we see William become embroiled in situations that become out of his depth. I felt the plot significantly slowed during this point, and went off in directions that perhaps took away from the exploration of the shadow and the curse. Although we do get more revelations on this slowly throughout the story, my expectations were that this would be the sole focal point, not one that also involved espionage. Having said that I did appreciate the backstory to the side characters that were introduced later on.
I particularly enjoyed the backstory of Margot, a French woman who William becomes entangled with, and her history was pretty sad.

I also felt the ending was left a bit too open for my own personal taste, as I would have preferred more closure. However, regardless of my opinion, the ending does have an authentic stroke to it because realistically speaking, when you’ve lived a life full of seeing truths, deceit, tragedy and a life of continuous running from a shadow, well it’s never going to end nicely tied up with a pretty bow, is it? There are some things that you just keep on running from or chasing towards.
‘Where was that fine young man I believed myself to be? Perhaps he had never lived. Perhaps we were all just savages, in the moonlight through the blackened boab tree.’

Arc provided by Orbit in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for the copy! The Pursuit of William Abbey is out 14th November 2019
Profile Image for William.
675 reviews314 followers
May 24, 2020
4 stars

(An attenuated review, due to my loss of all my notes, sorry)

Another extraordinary book, and Ms North proves again to be a genre unto herself, unlike any other. Truly wonderful.

As usual with my reviews, please first read the publisher’s blurb/summary of the book. Thank you.

Claire North (Catharine Webb)

Full size image here

William Abbey is a man almost without courage or purpose in life, just a loser cursed to live often in terror, and to often be a tool of the "great and good".

Throughout, he is pursued by the ghost of the boy, who will inflict extreme pain upon him, so he runs and runs.

If this book had been half as long, it would have been twice as good. Even at this length, the prose is always wonderful and interesting, but I found many of the scenes to be repetitive, sadly.

Still, Ms North is the single most repeatedly original and distinctive of writers. Every one of her other works has been 5-stars (or more, The End of the Day is an amazing Ten Stars) for me.

Notes and Quotes:

There was no point speaking. No need to beg for my life. She would look, and she would choose, as only God can do on judgement day. I nearly thanked her for it, asked in silence if she could tell me what she saw there, in the twisted knot of my heart. Did she see anyone worth forgiving? And if she could forgive me for what I had done, and who I had become, did that mean I could forgive myself? Was I a man worth sparing? I caught her arm, not fighting her, not trying to wrench the knife away, but steadying it, asking, what did she see? Who did she see? Who was I, and did she, who knew the truth that I did not, think my life worth living?

The chapter of the meeting between William and Margot is beautiful, an exploration of what really lies in our hearts, of truths we see in others but not in ourselves, of how and why we protect those we love or might love. Wonderful. Truly the heart and voice of Ms North in every way.

Full size image here

Profile Image for Shalini.
2,477 reviews199 followers
November 19, 2019
A very well researched book which had a curse as the focal point. It all started with one and led to a merry chase.

William Abbey in Africa, did not save a child from the mob. The child died and the mother cursed him that the shadow of her child would pursue him throughout his life. If the shadow caught William, someone close to him would die. And William needed to be on the move in any mode of transportation. The shadow would come after him at a steady rate. And William in essence became the Truth-Teller. He could read minds and would be forced to tell the truth.

My first book by author Claire North, I was quite fascinated with the curse as such a thing is common in my land. I have cursed once or twice at men... No idea if that came true ever. So getting to the story, I liked the long twisted road that William had to take to keep a step ahead of his shadow.

The author's hard work was portrayed well in the way different cultures and histories of the land were written. I liked seeing William traverse through different worlds, always telling the truth. A price he had to pay. The story moved at a child's pace and was quite detailed with William's thoughts. Ending was

Quite a few scenes were powerfully written, some of them were hard hitting. The words produced a strong imagery which remained all through the book. The author was plenty talented, that was obvious in the characterization of William Abbey. I could feel for him as his curse forced him to do what he would have probably never chosen.

Overall, quite a different read.
Profile Image for Lukasz.
1,224 reviews195 followers
August 17, 2020

Claire North's ideas continue to impress me. William Abbey is cursed - a shadow spirit's presence follows him around the world. When close, it gives him the power to see the truth of men’s hearts. When it catches him, it will kill those he loves.

Abbey spends most of his life running away from the shadow, working as a spy (government sees a perfect tool in him and his unique skills), becoming a traitor, falling in impossible and dangerous love. His story doesn't lack suspense but it's dense, dark, and bloody.

Parts of the story amazed me, parts of the story bored me. I had to force myself to get through some chapters. North tackles big questions about the nature of truth, love, and questions if we can ever really know one another. I liked it but didn't love it.

Profile Image for Robin Bonne.
599 reviews140 followers
December 28, 2019
Yikes on a bike. I don’t want to put the emotional labor into unpacking what is wrong with this narrative. The “magical negro” trope is a big no-no for white authors.
Profile Image for The Tattooed Book Geek (Drew). .
296 reviews615 followers
November 7, 2019
As always this review can also be found on my blog The Tattooed Book Geek: https://thetattooedbookgeek.wordpress...

In 1917, France, against the backdrop of the Great War. In a French hospital for wounded soldiers with cannon and gunfire reverberating outside and enemy forces closing in Dr William Abbey, over a few nights and with Langa, his shadow ever approaching and drawing nearer recounts his story to Sister Ellis.

Abbey’s story starts in South Africa, Natal, 1884, in a small and dusty frontier town. Abbey watches unmoving, too cowardly to intervene, to scared to put his own well-being in jeopardy as a gang of white colonists violently lynch Langa, a local young black boy to death.

In her arms, as her boy fades from this world and as he breathes his last breathe his mother curses William Abbey. Abbey made his choice, to do nothing and choices have consequences. His lack of action, lack of caring and lack of thought cursed him, he could have stood up and been counted, could have made a change, could have told the gang to stop…but he didn’t. Instead, the privileged white man, he chose to stand idly by as Langa, who, due to his colour is seen as a nobody and a nothing was brutally murdered. The curse, that the ghost of, the shadow of Langa, her son will follow Abbey to the ends of the earth, across the expanse of the known world. The shadow won’t ever stop following him, no matter how far or how fast he runs Langa will always be there, endlessly tracking him, walking, across different countries, different continents, across oceans, deserts, mountains and land always at the same steady pace, never wavering and never tiring. For the rest of his days, Langa will be there dogging his every step, haunting him.

The curse turns Abbey into a truth-speaker, someone who can see into the hearts of others but not into their own, their own is the one truth closed to them. It is like looking into a person’s soul, laying them bare, knowing them intimately and seeing who they truly are. As Langa draws nearer, Abbey sees the truth within people and the nearer the shadow, the stronger the connection. When the shadow of Langa is far away, Abbey is himself with his own beliefs, thoughts and feelings. As Langa draws near he starts dreaming the obscure and vague thoughts of others but still maintains his own senses and his own sense of self. As Langa approaches the clearer that Abbey can see into other people’s hearts and the truth that they hide within, the truths that they hold in the deepest, darkest part of their hearts, the truths that they won’t admit even to themselves or others. When Langa is in close proximity to Abbey, days, hours away, the effect of the curse is overpowering, overtaking his own thoughts, feelings and beliefs overwhelming his own truth and turning him into a babbling, rambling wreck with the truths of all of those around him cascading like rain, flowing like blood from a freshly opened wound from his mouth in a torrent. If the shadow, if Langa should reach Abbey, should touch him then, the person that he loves the most in the world will die. The cycle will repeat until everyone Abbey cares about is dead, there is no cure, no removal, Langa will haunt him forever on a never-ending journey as, to survive, to allow his loved ones to survive he must walk an endless road.

For Abbey, it is a curse, for others, those in a position of power, they don’t see it as a curse but as an ability to be used and Abbey, himself as a tool to be exploited. As such, Abbey comes to the attention of the Nineteen, a government agency for the British Empire where he is enlisted, employed to spy on people and learn the truths of them, of political secrets, of talk of rebellion and of threats to the Empire.

Abbey can’t settle down, can’t stay anywhere for too long and has to always be on the move to keep ahead of the shadow that will follow him until his last breath. He is always on guard as Langa needs to be close enough so that he can be useful to his masters in the Nineteen and hear the truths of his mark, his target and report on any threats that he finds.

There are others with the same curse as Abbey, some, like him, see it as a curse, others as a blessing and when he meets another truth-speaker they can converse simply by knowing the truth of each other with no words needed. The shadow never shows you your own truth, that remains a mystery to you, something that you can only glimpse if you see it in the eyes of another truth-speaker. As such, there is a sense of mystery to Abbey and his own truth. He is a coward and a rather inept spy but due to the presence of Langa, even when he isn’t under Langa’s influence from initially being blind to the thoughts of others, blinkered, he learns to open his eyes, read people and see the truth in them.

There is the truth, things that are fact, reality and that everyone knows to be true. Then there is your own truth, opinions, beliefs and feelings that you hold to be true but that are subjective to you, personally. Also, there is the truth that you believe about yourself but won’t admit, the truth that you keep hidden and that you keep locked away because you are too scared to look in the mirror, too scared to look too deeply within. If we don’t know the truth about ourselves then we can pretend that we are decent, honest and good, that we are content and happy, that we would do the right thing if needed, that we aren’t lonely and that we aren’t drowning in a sea of pain. But, what if someone could look inside and know the truth, pull back the mask, reveal the lies that we tell ourselves and know our own truth and what we keep in our heart, it is a frightening thought.

North has crafted a clever, complex, harrowing and thought-provoking story that is full of suspense and tension. The Pursuit of William Abbey spans the breadth of the globe, takes place across many years and is layered with depth. I was gripped by it and found it utterly fascinating. The blurb doesn’t give much away and honestly, I think that it is for the best as it allows you to experience how the story unfolds for yourself with only the bare minimum of information. Prior to reading the book, I had read the blurb and apart from the vague outline, I didn’t know what awaited me within the pages, what dark and disturbing roads the story would travel down. But, whatever I expected it wasn’t what I got with the story going far above and beyond what I envisioned happening and it is a powerhouse of impressive storytelling on display by North…just go buy it, read it and love it.

The Pursuit of William Abbey transcends any single genre to be something more, merging together historical fiction, mysticism and the supernatural, a revenge tale and an espionage thriller with hints of a love story and horror all thrown into the mix to create an incredible and powerful story.
Profile Image for Marianne.
3,267 reviews115 followers
December 26, 2019

“I know the truth of men’s hearts, and what I know is that they are right, every single one of them. They live within the power of their own rightness, and anyone who disagrees with them can only be wrong, and being wrong, they are therefore less. That is what I know, and it terrifies me.”

The Pursuit of William Abbey is the sixth stand-alone novel by award-winning British author, Claire North. Banished to South Africa by his wealthy father, Dr William Abbey is (poorly) practicing medicine is a small town in late 1884 when, after an inhuman act of cowardice, he is cursed. He watched as a white mob tortured a Zulu boy and, upon his death, the boy’s mother visited a life-long curse on William: the shadow of the boy will follow him, always.

He soon discovers that if Langa’s shadow catches up, the person most beloved by William dies and quickly understands he must flee. But a side effect of the curse is the ability, when the slowly-shuffling shadow is gaining ground on William, to know the true thoughts of those around him. He is a truth-speaker. Certain agencies see this as a beneficial attribute: William suddenly finds himself in the service of Her Majesty’s Government.

They have the resources to help him outrun Langa’s shadow, as long as he’s willing to use his special ability to their advantage. In doing this, he discovers there are other truth-speakers. He seeks them out, in hope of a cure, but not all see it as a curse, considering it instead, a blessing, a gift.

In 1917, in a field hospital in France, as she watches him sit vigil with a wounded soldier, Sister Ellis begins to understand that Dr William Abbey was very probably not sent from HQ, but is there for another reason. He seems to know her heart and, in the early hours, he explains the long and convoluted path that has led him there.

North’s characters, despite their flaws, are easy to invest in. William freely admits to being a coward, although occasionally proves the contrary in a tale not devoid of heroic acts: the most heroic actor will likely be a surprise to readers. The most despicable, too, is will only gradually be revealed as that. For the rest of the cast, when Langa is close, the swamp of truths from those around him that fill William’s head give the reader a multitude of lives: some as detailed vignettes, some just snippets, and a generous dose of history.

What an amazing imagination Claire North has! Again, a cleverly plotted tale that is well-thought out, utterly riveting and thought-provoking, a perceptive commentary on empires and how they use their power. North gives her characters a wealth of insightful observations on human nature. Brilliant, as usual.
Profile Image for Samantha.
1,586 reviews71 followers
April 18, 2020
This just felt...flat. Better in concept than in execution. And way too much melodramatic shouting.

Claire North’s newest offering is part ghost story, part spy novel, part...speculative historical fiction, I suppose. Which should be an oxymoronic description, but somehow it fits here.

I liked the idea of it, certainly, and in its more active moments, the story is propulsive. And yet I found myself struggling to care about the characters or the outcome and indifferent to the atmosphere.

The relationship between William and Margo felt shrill at times and failed to evoke any emotion in me, and the concept of “truth tellers” failed to excite. Again, better in theory than in execution.

Even Langa, Williams “curse” in human (undead?) form isn’t convincing as either a secret weapon or a villain and certainly not as both.

And while the research that fleshed out the story was thorough and well-executed, the dialogue was shouty and maudlin and felt mostly like talking for talking’s sake.

The book has some bright spots, but I much preferred Harry August.

*I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.*
Profile Image for Lata.
3,434 reviews180 followers
April 5, 2021
A densely plotted, slow-moving but compelling narrative moving from the story’s present in WWI at a casualty clearing station, to the many places William Abbey travels from his early adulthood to the book’s present.

What I liked:
-terrific period feel
-densely written plot
-a fairly unlikable main character whom you find yourself sympathizing with, despite his many failings
-an interesting take on events and the espionage leading to the First World War
-the nurse with whom Abbey relates his miserable life
-the relationship between the cursed truth-speaker and their shadow/ghost, and the frightening result of the truth-speaker and their shadow touching.
-the variety of truth-speakers, and the way they manage their relationship to their spirit

What didn’t work for me:
-William Abbey's implausible sympathies for those less fortunate than him (women, people of colour, etc.), which feels like a present-day understanding of inequality and systemic racism and misogyny in a man born in the 1800s.
54 reviews3 followers
February 17, 2020
Mmmmm, started of well but then sort of lost track of what was happening. William started off as a young doctor witnessing the murder of a young black boy in South Africa in the late 1800’s, he is cursed by the mother and the shadow of the boy follows him. He becomes a truth speaker and is recruited by the British government to spy on the European countries. he then tells his story to a nurse in the trenches during WWI . While I found the story riveting, it did jump from one timeline to the next.
22 reviews
September 8, 2020
Very disappointing

I very much enjoyed this author’s first book, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, so I was really looking forward to reading this one. What a disappointment! It was far too long and repetitive. It could easily have been 100 pages shorter with no loss to the narrative. I found myself skipping large sections just to get it finished and move on to something else.
Profile Image for Sabrina.
457 reviews13 followers
October 6, 2021
The Pursuit of William Abbey is my 5th book by Claire North. Unfortunately, her pattern continues to wear off for me. I was all flames and fire at the beginning – a nurse and a doctor during World War I, and the premise – you cannot run from the truth. And yet, as with the last few, I found myself back in the same pattern as the previous books and got bored. Funnily, she even included a reference to previous protagonists as if all of this could be the same world. I quite enjoyed that. The pacing also picked up again in the end and especially, whenever medicine was the topic. I really enjoyed that part about her meticulous research, but then, I’ve always been interested in medicine. Overall, I did like it, so 3 stars, but I’m not sure, if I should pick these books up again… they just lost their novelty.
Profile Image for Christine Sandquist.
183 reviews58 followers
November 11, 2019
This review and others can be read on my blog, Black Forest Basilisks. Thank you to Orbit for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review!

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.

If you enjoyed this review, please consider reading others like it on my blog, Black Forest Basilisks.
Profile Image for Maja Ingrid.
442 reviews126 followers
February 11, 2021
3,5 stars

Not sure if I was in the wrong mood or not or if my actual relationship with Claire North is either a love or hate one. Because all my reviews and ratings for her books has been everywhere between 2 and 5 stars. Or if I need to stop expecting another Harry August mind-blow.

But compared to North's other books, this one is one of the more one-linear books, meaning that it doesn't jump around the time line, as her previous works are known to do. Which I appreciate a lot because my brain doesn't need to work as hard to keep everything in order. And as always the plot is more meandering, and also takes you everywhere.

The premise of the book is great. William Abbey witnesses the murder of a boy, and the boy's mother puts a curse upon him. The curse means he'll be hunted by a shadow that will follow him over land and water all over the world. For if the shadow gets to him, someone he loves will die. There's more to that, the closer the shadow is to him, William will see the hidden truths of a person's heart and an unstoppable compulsion to tell those truths out loud, something that takes him on very dangerous and dark paths. North's books is exploring when it comes to life and death and human nature and this one is no exception.

Also compared to North's other books, writing-style-wise, this is also more "normal" than her usual style. In previous reviews for her books you can see me gush over her unique style of breaking writing rules. In this book there was very little of that. North is still a master crafter with words though.

Sadly though, this book didn't make me feel those things I expected to feel. Rating a Claire North book is always so difficult for me because the same book can go up and down between 1 and 5 stars because sometimes I'm bored but then suddenly I'm so awestruck I'm crying because she can write in such ways I feel so so much. I missed those feelings from this book so then the feeling of boredom is kind of taking over. Or maybe I was just in the wrong mood.
February 5, 2021
The Pursuit of William Abbey was all fur coat and no knickers. North writes beautifully, and there's some really confronting moments of body horror that were just amazingly written, but my main takeaway from the book was that it was boring. I skim read huge chunks of it and didn't feel like I was missing out. It's such a shame because the concept is great. I just felt like it was a work that gives the illusion of depth that it simply didn't have.

The pacing is methodical. We hear the story of William Abbey from Abbey himself, and so it reads like a list events, rather than giving the reader an experience. The result is that The Pursuit of William Abbey is 90% exposition and it made me feel like North just wanted to show off the historical research she's done rather than write a compelling story. It was stories being told within stories, with very little of substance to say.

I guess the subtext is for the British to confront the truth about their colonial past, but for something meant to be revising that history, The Pursuit of William Abbey fell into a lot of "colonial traps". The fact that Abbey has to keep moving meant that the cultures and lived history of the people in the countries he passed through we're never properly explored or represented - except through the eyes of a white, British coloniser. Sure, he's sympathetic, but he's still the only voice for colonised peoples resulting in a narrative that didn't truly seek to delve into what it meant to be a colonised people.

Abbey claims to confront the truth of others, and yet I didn't feel we ever learned much about him. The Pursuit of William Abbey didn't leave me feeling like I'd learned anything, despite being full of big concepts on the surface. Full of melodramatic tragedy, I never learned to care for any of the characters because everything was just so overblown. It's one of the reasons that North's analysis of the nature of truth rang so hollow.

Overall, The Pursuit of William Abbey was a well-written book, but not a particularly engaging one. From a technical standpoint it's well worth picking up, but ultimately I felt it lacked any real depth.
Profile Image for Jennifer (JC-S).
2,785 reviews191 followers
August 21, 2022
‘The truth-speaker was tall as a stretcher, thin as a rifle.’

France, 1917. Dr William Abbey, caring for soldiers wounded in the Great War, tells his story to Nurse Ellis. His story started in South Africa in the 1880s. Then a young and naïve doctor, William Abbey witnesses the lynching of Langa, a young boy, by the white colonists. William watches and does nothing. As Langa dies, his mother curses William. Langa’s shadow starts following William wherever he travels. William cannot outrun the shadow which travels inexorably: across oceans and mountains. He may be able to get ahead of it, but if he stops it will catch him, and the person he loves most in the world will die.

‘That is the first lesson of the curse that was laid upon me.’

And when the shadow gets close, William has the power to see the truth in men’s hearts. This is a skill which the government sees as particularly useful, and William becomes a spy. Sadly, he cannot see the truth in his own heart. The government can fund William’s travel so that he can stay ahead of Langa’s shadow: while indefatigable it cannot travel faster than a walking pace.

William discovers that there are other truth-speakers in the world, complicating his life enormously. Each truth-speaker needs to keep moving. Travel may buy them a few days in one location and his work as a spy requires Langa’s shadow to be close. William may be more comfortable with his own thoughts, when Langa is still some distance away, but he can never be safe.

‘How much is this world bettered by truth, by honest knowing? How many people have perished in pain for the simple want of that?’

There is plenty of suspense in this dark story. There is no relief for William: Langa’s shadow will persist in following him until everyone William cares for is dead. And yet, he does not live in total isolation.

‘How much bigger the world appears when you discover that all the truths you have ever known are nothing but stories you were told as children, collapsing beneath the force of that primary, observed truth of things as they actually are, not as they appear in the hearts of men.’

This is the first book by Ms North that I have read. I will be looking out for others. A powerful, unsettling rollercoaster ride.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
Profile Image for Laura Jean.
1,009 reviews14 followers
December 9, 2019
This is a phenomenal book. It has a strong philosophical bent. What is truth? What is the truth of a person's heart? Can one heart contain multiple conflicting "truths"? So powerful and thought provoking. I can't imagine the author choosing a better time to set this masterpiece. Set between 1884 and 1917, a time when people believed that science and reason could master all, but when magic and superstition were still strong in many cultures. A time when the British Empire covered 3/4 of the globe and forced their mores and culture and beliefs on many of the cultures in their dominion to the disgust and irritation of those whom they ruled.

I'm going to need to read it again, just to make sure that I understood everything...gave the philosophy enough of my attention. I may have missed some in my rush to find out what happened and how. Just a simply wonderful read.
Profile Image for RG.
3,092 reviews
November 30, 2019
3.5* recently when I've read a North book ive been a little underwhelmed. We have the great prose shes known for, a more linear plot style and a story very well researched ( historical fiction elements). I just didnt feel as engaged as I did with her previous stories.
Profile Image for Anna.
1,631 reviews600 followers
March 8, 2020
This is the second novel of Claire North's that I've read, the first being The End of the Day. Based on these reading experiences, I think I prefer North's genuinely fascinating ideas to her writing style. I find the latter involves a lot more tell than show, manifesting in verbose inner monologues that wear a bit thin. This is entirely personal preference, of course. I found a lot to appreciate in 'The Pursuit of William Abbey' and definitely enjoyed it more than The End of the Day. The concept is this: in 1884 William Abbey stood by and watched while an African child was brutally lynched, and the child's mother placed a curse upon him. The shadow of the murdered child follows him relentlessly at a walking pace and as soon as it touches him, the person he loves most dies. When the shadow is merely near, however, he is essentially psychic, able to 'read the truth of someone's heart'. Once he and the reader understand this, which takes a little while, the substantive plot begins. While I found the pace rather inconsistent, the latter half of the book is really involving and builds considerable tension. Two moments stand out in particular.

The overarching theme of the novel is the damage caused by colonialism. While this is certainly conveyed very effectively, the tell-not-show approach was not always to my taste. I would also have preferred the narrative to be grounded more concretely in historical events. Many of the main characters are spies and agitators, yet their activities are not woven into actual political debates and upheavals of the late 19th and early 20th century. It would have been great for actual politicians and revolutionaries of that period to appear. As it is, the novel generally felt more like an alternate universe than a historical novel with supernatural elements. Still, I did appreciate the sense of technological change over time. Although I didn't find William Abbey himself a very interesting character, he made a good foil for a cast of appealing secondary characters. Above all, I loved the exploration of how the truth-speaker's curse was experienced, interpreted, and exploited very differently in a range of cultural contexts. The story is one of continual movement to evade pursuit and the dread this evokes builds very well indeed. Despite my doubts about the style, I found 'The Pursuit of William Abbey' thrilling and involving.
Profile Image for Pauliina (The Bookaholic Dreamer) .
402 reviews42 followers
January 29, 2020
3.5 stars!

Claire North's books are always extremely intriguing. The premise sucks you in and the writing is spectacular, both introspective and intelligent. Although the premises of the previous books I have read by the author have been more complex than this was one, I was more confused by the events in the Pursuit of William Abbey than any others.

William Abbey is a doctor in the 19th century and in Africa, he evidences a horrendously cruel event of white men burning a black boy alive, and he does nothing. Just watches. The mother of the boy curses Abbey - the shadow of him will follow Abbey where ever he goes, and once he catches him, the one Abbey loves the most will die. The shadow will then rise from the corpse of that loved one and continue pursuing Abbey.

The characters are amazing and the plot is gripping - its just pretty confusing. We jump in location a lot but also in time, alternating between the perspectives of Abbey at various points of his life, but also that of a nurse in the middle of the 1st or 2nd world war (I haven't got a clue which). I got names, places and times messed up. I enjoyed it very much, Claire North is amazing at making very intellectual characters that have a lot of depth to them and creating immersive premises - but I wouldn't be able to draw a map of what happened here.

It's both brilliant and confusing! So I'll give it a confusing 3.5 stars 😅
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