Book Review of Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

After a long career in the military, Sergeant Lester Ferris faces retirement and the need to adjust to civilian life. More than that, he desperately seeks human connection and a new purpose. This desperation is what makes him fit in so well with the other people living on the island of Mancreu. The bowels of the island bubbles with toxicity: a ticking time bomb left by former corporate overseers. The people of the island now face fiery judgment by an international community afraid of what might develop in that toxic witches brew. Some islanders flee, but many stay, holding on to their homes for as long as possible. Without a functioning government, though, and with the constant threat of destruction, the civil balance is fragile at best. When the life on the island tips toward madness, Ferris is the one person who might be able to make a difference. But if Ferris does become a hero, he’ll do it not for the island, but for his best friend, a brilliant street kid who has the potential to be Ferris’ new purpose in life.

Tigerman, by Nick Harkaway, is a slow read, but it is the slowness of something to be savored. The writing is dense but sweet, like candy, each sentence painstakingly crafted, each word chosen with care. The characters read at first glance like caricatures, but their flamboyant natures are intentional, reflecting the larger-than-life sensibility of comic books. As the novel progresses, each character reveals more sides and depths, expanding into realism without ever losing their comic-book shine.

Harkaway uses the same sort of slow reveal with the narrative, beginning with ambiguity and resolving into complicated clarity. The beginning of the novel may be the most frustrating for readers, as Harkaway introduces several details without explaining their presence; while all relevant, their relevance is exposed later. While this is uncomfortable, Tigerman is part mystery, and it is perhaps unavoidable that Harkaway introduces plot points without their context. The situation of the island also remains unclear till the end of the first chapter; instead of giving the readers a firm grasp on the setting, Harkaway instead gives the readers a firm grasp of his characters. His characters are, after all, the stars of the novel. But Harkaway’s references to leaving and the doom of the island, without explaining how the island is doomed, is confusing.

If the reader can accept the initially bumpy ride, soon the flow of the narrative becomes easy, the island familiar, and the characters old friends. Tigerman borrows from graphic novels and detective novels, and might be a good fit for fans of either genre, but instead of using pictures, Harkaway paints lavishly with words, and Ferris is not so much a hardboiled cynic as he is armored. Ferris is also charming, honorable, and awkward, and his journey and desperation will easily be felt by the reader, who will cheer for him, feel joy for him, and ache for him.