Two novels into an author’s career might be too soon to generalise, but we have to work with what we’ve got. I’m coming to think of Nick Harkaway’s novels as battlegrounds between whimsy and cold, hard seriousness. The Gone-Away World combined mime artists and digressive prose with a desire to treat the effects of its reality-bending weapon matter-of-factly; Angelmaker embodies the conflict in its protagonist. Joe Spork’s father, Mathew was a master criminal – and no ordinary one, but a gentleman-crook of the old school. As a boy, Joe spent his days in the world of the Night Market – the kind of shadowy gathering which one assumes could only exist in fiction, whose changing locations is revealed only by clues hidden in newspapers. It’s crime that belongs in a heightened version of reality; but here it is in the world of Angelmaker, and Joe wants none of it; instead, he has followed in the footsteps of Daniel, his grandfather, and become a clockmaker. But his latest job makes Joe cross paths with Edie Banister, a nonagenarian ex-spy; and eventually he gets caught up in a plot to end the world with a swarm of clockwork bees – components of the Apprehension Engine, a device which would cause people to apprehend truth so clearly that it would render the universe static.
Like the criminal underworld of Joe’s youth, Edie Banister’s world of espionage is more colourful than our reality should be able to hold – she was schooled in the ways of spying from an early age, aboard an artisan-crafted train and submarine, and has a ruthless arch-enemy who makes Keyser Söze look like a sissy – and Joe remains protected by a firm of old-school-tie types with seemingly bottomless resources. But Harkaway underlines that the passage of time has been squeezing out these ways of being: ‘The world was getting old and cruel. The great game [Edie] had played, the wild, primary-colour roller coaster, had become something harsher.’ (p. 347) That primary-coloured world is what Joe has spent his life trying to escape, but his story throughout Angelmaker is one of learning to balance his past and presenrt – just as the novel as a whole finds a balance between its outlandish and down-to-earth aspects.
Not everything in the novel works so well: Joe’s love interest, Polly Cradle, remains a little too close to the stereotype of super-competent totty; and I think Angelmakerasks its readers to feel more warmly towards its larger-than-life crime capers than I personally was able to. But then the novel treads its high-wire with nimble feet and gives us genuinely chilling scenes in which Joe has been seized and is tormented by his gentlemanly captors. It shows that Edie’s nemesis is no cartoon villain, but all too real and ruthless beyond belief. It causes the hairs on the back of one’s neck to rise with its fantastical hints of a world changed by the Apprehension Engine. It wrong-foots us with passages of genuine emotion in the midst of a deceptively light narrative. If Angelmaker pits whimsy against seriousness, the outcome is a stalemate; but the real winners of the fight are Nick Harkaway and his readers.
This book has been shortlisted for the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts on this year’s Award.