ANGELMAKER by Nick Harkaway
Nick Harkaway (www.nickharkaway.com)
William Heinemann (www.randomhouse.co.uk/editions/imprint/william-heinemann)
Every so often, I run across a book that catches me completely by surprise; a book that I picked up on a whim, having never heard of it before, that strikes a chord and immediately becomes a firm favourite. Nick Harkaway’s first novel, The Gone-Away World, was just such a novel, from its eye-catching hardback cover (the “Signed by the Author” sticker was a sweetener, I’ll happily admit) when I saw it on the shelf at my local Waterstone’s (or is it Waterstones?), to the interesting and intriguing blurb that I found inside, to the sheer delight I encountered when I started to read. Needless to say, I have been waiting with great anticipation for Harkaway’s second novel and I’m happy to say that it has been a worthwhile almost-four-year wait.
Angelmaker tells the story of Joshua Joseph (“Joe”) Spork, a quiet, unassuming man who makes a living repairing clockwork and enjoying the quiet life. Joe has a past that makes this more difficult than it seems, for he is the son of Mathew “Tommy Gun” Spork, at one time London’s most notorious gangster, and the leader of the legendary Night Market. When Joe’s friend, Billy Friend, turns up on his doorstep with a piece of erotic automata, and a mysterious book and assorted oddments, Joe is intrigued, and contrives to meet the client from whom Billy has obtained the items.
The book, the key to a doomsday device built shortly after the Second World War, invites trouble to Joe’s doorstep, from the Legacy Board – in the guise of Messrs Titwhistle and Cummerbund – to the mysterious, and sinister, Ruskinite monks. Joe soon finds himself the most wanted man in Britain and, with a somewhat motley crew – including a woman slipping towards the end of her eighties who might just be the only person alive who knows exactly what’s going on – he confronts the forces of the mighty Shem Shem Tsien, International Bastard of Mystery, in an attempt to save the world.
With his second novel, Harkaway moves away from the science fiction setting, while retaining all of the wit and verve that made The Gone-Away World such a success. Angelmaker is more in the mold of Neil Gaiman, China Mieville or Christopher Fowler: the novel is set firmly in a modern day London, but there’s also a city beneath; the literal underworld, where the city’s shady characters and forgotten souls spend most of their time. This is the world of the Tosher’s Beat and the Night Market, and represents a world that Joe is trying to forget, although his eventual return seems inevitable from the outset. Angelmaker is an adventure story, a spy thriller, old-fashioned gangster noir and black comedy rolled into one with a hint of satire for good measure.
The characters are beautifully drawn, real people in a world that’s slightly off-kilter: the old woman who was, once upon a time, one of England’s deadliest agents; the fast-talking lawyer with a gift for the dramatic; his sister, with her outrageously sexy toes and her slightly skewed views on equal rights; the evil and cracked Shem Shem Tsien, who wants to become God, but who feels the need to surround himself with bug-zapping lights because of a piece of fiction he once read; the oddly-mismatched Titwhistle and Cummerbund, Angelmaker’s answer to Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar (“hilarious though they are to look upon they are less funny than Typhoid Mary and more serious than the whole of Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs”). And holding everything together the easy-going Joe, a man starting to feel old:
Even now – particularly now, when thirty years of age is visible in his rear view mirror and forty glowers at him from down the road ahead, now that his skin heals a little more slowly than it used to from solder burns and nicks and pinks, and his stomach is less a washboard and more a comfy if solid bench – Joe avoids looking at it.
Joe is quite typical for the hero of this type of novel: slightly disconnected from the world, more interested in the clockwork with which he spends his days than the people around him and, as a result, less attuned to subtext, even when it’s thrust in his face (quite literally):
Joe gives her his hand, and she places his hand, palm down, on her chest and leans firmly towards him…With the heel of his hand Joe can feel the curve of one breast. He has absolutely no idea whether this is deliberate. It’s lovely. He tries to be polite and not notice.
As you might expect from a man as opinionated as Harkaway (go on, check his Twitter feed, you’ll see what I mean), his jokes are timely and extremely cutting. One example of many: as the bees, harbingers of the end of the world, spread across the globe, governments act, moving quickly into the realms of the ridiculous overreaction:
Bee-keepers are told they must register, must submit their hives for inspection. No, of course, these are no ordinary bees, but it pays to be safe. It helps to rule people out. Any bee-keeper, after all, might be a sympathiser, a fifth columnist.
What Angelmaker most resembles, to my mind, is a vast and sprawling Neal Stephenson novel, the perfect companion piece for his Cryptonomicon. It takes a similar form: the two time streams, one present day (or as near as damn it), the other Edie’s story of her time as a much younger woman working for Science 2. Where Stephenson spends chunks of the book describing the technology and the cryptographic techniques, Harkaway finds himself with a much less solid proposition, cleverly avoiding any in-depth detail as to how the book, the bees, the attendant clockwork actually work. But for everything else, he is a fiend for detail and it is refreshing to find an author unafraid to follow the tangent, even if it is at the temporary cost of dramatic tension. And go back to what I said about Joe and typical heroes in this type of novel; tell me Randy Waterhouse doesn’t fit this exact mold.
Angelmaker is that rare beast: the sophomore novel that lives up to – if not surpasses – the promise of the author’s first. It’s a wonderfully-written book – Harkaway has a knack with the language that makes this huge novel very easy to read and enjoy. It has more than its fair share of dark and shocking scenes and more than a handful of genuine laugh-out-loud moments, and even one or two places where both things are true at the same time. It’s clear to see the novel’s influences, but this is something new, something different and completely unexpected. It’s goes in a much different direction than The Gone-Away World (although there are connections enough for the sharp-eyed reader), which might disappoint a small contingent looking for more of the same, but it does achieve a similar end: it’s a beautiful showcase for a talented writer, a unique voice and inventive mind who can, it seems, turn his hand to anything.
At this early stage, I’m more than happy to call Angelmaker one of the best books you’re likely to read this year. We can live in hope that the wait for the next one won’t be quite as long.