Nick Harkaway’s previous novels have included clockwork bumblebees and a 90-year-old superspy in Angelmaker and kung-fu fighting truck drivers in Gone Away World. Tigerman narrows the scope to events on just one small tropical island, but is no less fantastic as the author creates his own superhero saga.
Our reluctant hero is Lester Ferris, a burnt-out sergeant in the British Army, currently serving out his time as the sole representative for the United Kingdom on the former colony of Mancreu. After a lifetime fighting for Queen and country, Lester’s new assignment should be peacefully uneventful. Mancreu is slowly being evacuated, but this is being overseen by an international task force, which has little to do with him. All Lester is supposed to do is man the empty embassy, do some light paperwork and turn a blind eye to the illicit ships in the bay exploiting the island’s legal limbo.
The only problem is that Lester has made a friend: a brilliant street urchin who has learnt English from reading internet forums and is obsessed with comic-books. Concerned about the boy’s future, Lester wants to adopt the child and give him a better life – a noble aim, but despite spending every day with him, Lester doesn’t even know his name. The archetypal Englishman, Lester is not one for talking about his emotions. Unable to find the right words to express his paternal love for the boy, Lester tries to show him with actions. This results in him donning a bright orange catsuit, fighting crime and investigating a series of murders.
This might seem far-fetched – and let’s face it, it is – but it helps that the island of Mancreu is already populated with some larger-than-life characters, such as White Raoul, a heavily tattooed holy man, and Kershaw, a blustering American bureaucrat. Despite the boy’s achingly modern references to Leet speak and Gangnam Style, Tigerman reads like a very traditional, almost Wodehousian English satire.
Just as Lester’s investigations lead him to wonder if the local superstition of a devil named Black Jack could be the front for a criminal kingpin, authorities announce a definitive deadline for evacuating Mancreau. Lester realises he is also running out of time to trace the boy’s birth-parents and arrange an adoption. As he asks everyone on the island for help, they all ask the same question: why won’t he just talk to the boy?
As Lester’s stiff upper lip begins to tremble, Harkaway deconstructs his superhero, exposing the raw emotions beneath the mask. Tigerman is about the often unspoken affection between fathers and sons, how the feelings are felt no less keenly for being unsaid and can provoke fathers to perform heroic acts. However, it also serves as a cautionary tale of the dangers of not sharing those feelings sooner.
The plot twists in Tigerman won’t be terribly shocking to anyone who knows there comic book lore or has seen the movie Unbreakable, and can be guessed pages before they are revealed, but it is still a captivating read.