The Pursuit of William Abbey


By Claire North

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A hauntingly powerful novel about how the choices we make can stay with us forever, by the award-winning author of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and 84K.

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.

Gripping, moving, and thought-provoking, The Pursuit of William Abbey proves once again that Claire North is one of the most innovative voices in modern fiction.


Previous books by Claire North:

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August


The Sudden Appearance of Hope

The End of the Day


The Gameshouse


Previous books written as Kate Griffin:

Matthew Swift novels:

A Madness of Angels

The Midnight Mayor

The Neon Court

The Minority Council

Magicals Anonymous novels:

Stray Souls

The Glass God


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Tap here to learn more.

Chapter 1

France, 1917

The truth-speaker was tall as a stretcher, thin as a rifle. He wore a black coat that stopped just above his knees, a tie the colour of drying blood, a black felt Derby hat and a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles on a string. He carried a brown doctor’s bag in one hand, and a military-issue shoulder sack. Behind him the sky popped with cannon, the sound rolling in half a minute later like the wash of the sea. His curse can’t have been too near then, because he looked me in the eye and lied.

“My name is Dr Abbey,” he said. “I’ve been sent by HQ.”

I never asked to check his papers. Matron was so relieved, she babbled.

Sister Beatrice had to move from her room. A doctor needed better quarters than a nurse. She, being senior to me and Helene, immediately claimed ours. The window was small and let in the winter air, but it was in a good position on the south side of the building and there had been no rats seen for nearly three months.

Me and Helene was pushed into a tiny, lime-washed, spider-scuttling den in the eastern corner of the house. We dragged my bed on its side through the corridors, shuffling in socks, trying to keep the scraping of metal on wood from waking the patients below. In whispers we grumbled about this new intruder on our routines, and Helene wrote a letter to her Ma saying it were all terrible and she wanted to come home, but she never sent it, and I put my head down on my pillow with resentment in my heart, and slept badly, and woke for a moment frightened, and was surprised I could still be scared.

When I went down for the afternoon shift, I found Dr Abbey about his rounds, drifting from bed to bed with the same expression on his face for every patient, whether they were hopeful of recovery or waiting for death. He did not smile, did not frown, but with every man he stopped, looked into their eyes as if he were staring down the barrel of a gun, asked a few questions, nodded at a couple of replies, then moved on without a word.

In this way – cold, almost bored – he was just another typical bloody doctor. On the battlefield the surgeons only saw flesh, never the men they cut open. We were all getting good at not seeing eyes. It were the sisters who carried the bodies to the carts, stripped the beds, put the unfinished letters to family in a bag, trimmed off the corners that were stained with blood. We picked up the limbs the surgeons cut and put them in a box: an arm without a hand; a leg hanging together by a stitch of muscle at the knee. We cleaned brain off the knife and picked out bone from between the teeth of the saw, held the boys down when the ether ran low.

When I first came to the battlefield, I would listen to the cannon and think I heard the end of the world.

There was one other doctor at the house. Dr Nicolson had been sent to us at the Jardin du Pansée, six miles back from the line, after being caught inhaling ether. Matron kept the cupboards locked tight when Dr Nicolson did his rounds. The arrival of Dr Abbey at last let Nicolson indulge in his love of Indian gin, shipped to him by his mother every six weeks via a small Portuguese man who he called “cousin” and who had not a word of English. When the gin came late, he would stand vigil by the garden gate; if it came early, he might share the smallest of drams, and then look immediately regretful as we drank it down, and hide the bottles after.

If Abbey cared, it didn’t show. He arrived in shadow, and in shadow he stayed, and in silence we performed our duties, numb to neither cannon or the cries of men to pull us from our thoughts.

Chapter 2

On his second night in the Jardin, Lieutenant Charlwood came down with a fever. We sisters took turns by his bed, waiting. I had been trained by the Nightingale sisters, and back in Manchester I could tie bandages, staunch bleeding, prepare saline and spoon-feed a mother and her freshly born babe; but here only God chose which man with his face burnt to a plum or what soldier with his gut ripped out might by a miracle live or die. We were powerless before pus and poison, and when the blind men came off the field, faces burst with mustard gas, blisters the size of apples popping from their skin, what could we do? The Jardin was a place for men to die, or if they did not, they would be sent back to England, no longer fit to fight.

I knew there was little I could do except pray for Charlwood as he clawed at his sheets, bloody eyes bulging, tongue pushing in and out of snapping yellow teeth as he groaned at the night. I knelt by his side and prayed, and knew I didn’t believe no more, and that there weren’t no God listening, but felt as how I should try. We all liked Charlwood. Like many men, he neither looked at nor spoke about his injuries, but laughed and smiled and joked that he was in a bit of a pickle, and wondered if the ladies would mind – all the usual talk of brave boys who didn’t know that we had heard this bravery from a thousand other broken ones before.

That night, the truth-speaker came, no knock at the door. In socks, his black coat pulled over striped red flannel pyjamas, right arm wrapped tight across his body against the cold, left carrying an oil lamp by its curved brass handle. His dark brown hair was combed back from his face, turning up long streaks of grey from beneath the surface. His beard was trimmed and flecked with the same pallor – was he old before his time, a man in his forties marked by war? Or was he a slow ager, already into his sixties and hiding beneath hat and hair? He had eyes the colour of my grandad’s dining table, all polished and gleaming in the light, which vanished beneath thick eyebrows when he looked down, then popped wide like an egg when he raised his head. Like all of us, he had no real meat on him, and the skin hung loose beneath his jaw, and there was nothing – not hook nose nor protruding ear – that gave him any feature that was remarkable. If the men who drew the caricatures of native peoples of the world had wanted to draw an average Englishman, they could have drawn him.

I stood when he entered the room, but he gestured me down with a finger to his lips. Putting his lamp on the nightstand by Charlwood’s head, he examined his eyes, felt for his pulse, the temperature of his skin, smelt his breath and his sweat, rolled back his gown, examined the edges of the bandages around his hips, sniffed at stumps, nodded, returned the gown and pulled the blankets back up again, pushing the edges in around his torso like a parent tucking in a child.

Then he sat.

And watched.

And waited.

I didn’t know what to make of this. The silence of the lonely night was a ritual for every sister who kept vigil, and we did not share it. We waited alone with the dying men; the doctors never came, and only the women watched.

Yet now he sat there, and in his silence it seemed that he was admitting the thing that the nurses all knew, and the doctors never said – that we were powerless.

The cannon were quiet that night. Sometimes they were quiet because they were out of shells, or the generals had lost interest, or there were other battles somewhere further down the writhing line from sea to mountain where the bigger guns were blasting. Sometimes they were quiet because the men were climbing into the dark, crawling towards the machine guns. You never could tell, unless the wind blew right to carry the sound of the dying.

We sat by lamplight watching the soldier groaning in his bed, and neither me nor Abbey said a word, until after an hour, or perhaps two, he left as quietly as he had come, and closed the door behind him.

Chapter 3

When this war began and I were in the field hospital, I would gossip with the sisters about the latest pretty young doctor come to the tents, though Lord knows I couldn’t have cared less for them. It was a ritual we performed for every young man who arrived with his bones intact and light in his eyes. We giggled like we were home in England, laughing at private jokes and fantasies, forgetting for a little time where we were.

There was none of that in the Jardin. Those of us sent to this place were just performing functions, without feigning life, without noting death. It were meant as a kind of respite. In the Jardin, Matron said, there was no struggle. There was no terror, no expectation, no story to be told. There was just the day passing, and the morning truck to deliver the living and the evening truck to take away the dead.

Once, it had been a stately home, a place where French maidens had picnicked in the summer sun while artists in berets and white smocks painted the lilies on the water. In spring the garden was a quilt of pale violet and lavender, pinks and pockets of creamy yellow. In summer the shrubs broke out into wine red and royal blue, and we would sit and watch the evening primroses open on the quietest nights, when you could imagine the war was some other place.

It was winter now, felt like it had been winter for ever.

On the next night I sat with Charlwood, waiting for him to die, Abbey came again. I was holding the soldier’s right hand, squeezing it tight at the moments of the worst pain. Then Abbey took his left, and I nearly let go. There was something inappropriate about the thing, like through the injured man we were sharing an unclean, intimate touch.

We waited.

I wanted to ask questions, but they all seemed inane.

I thought I might cry, and hadn’t realised how much harder it were to sit with someone else than to sit alone.

I held on to Charlwood’s hand, and found that I wanted him to live, and didn’t know as how I had that sort of feeling in me no more.

And after a few hours, he seemed a little quieter, and the doctor went back to bed.


On the third day, the fever broke, and on the fourth, as Abbey made his rounds, Charlwood opened his eyes and looked up into the doctor’s face and said, “I know you, don’t I?”

Abbey simply shook his head, and walked on.

Chapter 4

We were having dinner when Captain Fairchild died. It happened so fast; Helene ran in on the verge of tears, and though Matron insisted that a sister never run, Abbey was already out of his chair and sprinting down the hall before Helene had finished rattling her words. Fairchild was gasping, his lips turning blue, eyes rolling from side to side in search of remedy. Even Nicholson was roused at the fuss, and stood in the door watching as we tried raising him up to breathe better, Matron wheeling in the heavy gas mask and gas cylinder. But Abbey just shook his head as Matron moved to fix the mask over Fairchild’s face, and the Captain saw it, and he like everyone else knew he was going to die. I don’t know if that made the next three minutes in which he gasped for life easier; perhaps it did. He passed out before his heart stopped, and we laid him back down. He had been due for discharge back to England the next day.


That night, I stood in the garden beneath the great-leafed fig tree as the rains came. The cannon were a half-hearted rumble, grunting without order or meaning. The rain, when it burst, pushed all other sound away, filling the night with water on stone, water on soil, water on furry leaf, water dripping off needle and spine, on metal pipe and tapping on dirty glass. I put my hands out beneath the reach of the tree and listened to water on skin, and wondered who I would be when I went home.

I don’t know how long he’d been there, or if he’d even arrived before me and I hadn’t seen him in the shadows, but I heard his feet on wet leaves and thick black soil, and jumped, pulling my shawl around me to see him half caught against the light of far-off cannon and slithered moon.

“Apologies, Sister,” he mumbled. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”

“No.” A half-mutter, pulling my shawl so tight it bent my shoulders forward, stepping a little further from him, back to the house, head brushing a low-hanging leaf. “Of course.”

By now, I was almost used to his strangeness. We had kept vigil over Charlwood, and he had watched as we prepared the body of Fairchild for the undertaker’s cart, saying nothing. I felt no need to show him the usual deference due a doctor. Now, we were two people watching the rain.

When I spoke, therefore, I were surprised to hear myself, and even more at how clearly my voice pushed through the gloom. “Fairchild wasn’t phosgene.”

“No. If it was the gas, he would have been hit sooner. It was a pulmonary embolism. There was nothing to be done.” Then, an afterthought, a flicker of something human through the doctor’s mask: “It wasn’t anyone’s fault.”

“It was the enemy’s fault,” I replied flatly. “It was the war.”

We watched the rain.

His eyes were somewhere else, his voice talking to a different place. “The woman I love is alive and well. The children lived. The shadow will not come.” These words sounded almost like prayer, a ritual of speech. Being spoken, he shook his head, as if working out a fuzzy notion, and declared a little louder, “Sister Ellis. You know that she is waiting for you, that she forgives you. But in its way, her forgiveness makes it harder for you to go home.”

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.

Abbey nodded once, satisfied with his pronouncement, and walked into the house, and didn’t look back.

Chapter 5

Matilda always accepted who she was, and how she wanted to live. Her conviction, defying all other certainties, made her more beautiful. I never had that confidence, but despite it she still seemed to love me, until I ran away.

I didn’t sleep that night, nearly fell asleep at dinner, and jerked back to attention terrified of Matron catching me napping. There was blood in the sergeant’s piss when we pulled the bedpan away, and Charlwood cried out with pain when he tried to have a shit, and kept on apologising for not being strong, for not being better, so sorry, Sister, so sorry. He were scared of eating, because of how much it would hurt. We cut away some of the bandages where they were stained with shit.

Felt good to whisper these words under my breath when no one was looking. Piss. Shit. Nightingale nurses are Christian women with excellent values. They pray three times a day, are clean in word and deed, read the Bible to their patients and tell the men to think of their country and their wives.

I thought about writing to Matilda. Thought about sneaking into Abbey’s room, going through his things, but got to his door and just kept on walking like I had somewhere else to be.

Charlwood lay in his bed and declared, “Bit of rotten luck, really. And just before the push; I feel so awful about it, awful about leaving the men.”

Once, a major with very similar injuries to these had made a very similar speech, and I had blurted, “Don’t you think you’ve given enough? Don’t you think it’s time to be honest?”

He had blustered something behind his great grey moustache, and muttered that at least he’d had the Boer War, and the next day hadn’t met my eye, and complained that the pain was getting worse, and when we sent him home, I didn’t know if I had done a terrible thing or a great good. I still don’t know, and kept my mouth shut after.

“I feel so sure we’ve met, Dr Abbey,” mused Charlwood. “I feel certain of it.”

And Abbey smiled, and said nothing, and sniffed at Charlwood’s bandages, and eased back the sheets to check for pus seeping between the plaster wedges at his groin, and Charlwood lay on his back and stared at the ceiling and proclaimed, fingers clawing at the sheet and smile locked like a bayonet, “Maybe in London, or at HQ perhaps? Or maybe I’m just confused, very likely, you know, very likely.”

Slowly Abbey straightened up, pulled sheet and blanket back over the lieutenant’s hips, looked him in the eye and said, “Given your paperwork, Lieutenant, do you think acquaintance advantageous at this time?”

I saw it then in Charlwood; like he’d seen a spider in the corner of his room. He was frozen for a moment, then gave a single, short laugh and blurted, “Ah well, you know how it is with faces!” and looked away, and held a little tighter to the sheets bunched in his fists, to stop himself scratching at the places where limbs should be.


At night, I sat on a bench of gently blooming yellow lichen and green weeds, and smelt the trenches’ stink on the breeze, piss and rubber and wet khaki and smoke and acid and shit. Before the War Department started shifting gas masks – so slow, everything so slow – men wrapped socks soaked in their own urine around their noses and mouths. It made a bit of a difference, the survivors said. The only other thing to do was stand as high as they could, away from the trenches and tunnels where the gas pooled, and hope that no one shot you as you made yourself a welcoming target.

Abbey sat down next to me without a word, no socks or shoes, bare feet pressing on cold stones. The moon was fat and brilliant, drowning out the stars; a good killing moon. First time we’d seen a plane fly towards the battlefield, all the sisters had waved and screamed, before we realised it was German, not one of our own. An owl screeched, exasperated at disturbances. A sister dropped her pan in the pantry, and I hoped it were empty before it hit the floor.

Finally I said, “HQ didn’t send you.” He swung bare feet back and forth, a child kicking at an imaginary stream, and didn’t answer. “You here for Charlwood?”

His feet kept kicking, and now his bottom lip curled in, chewing on a reply. A single nod. The kicking slowed and stopped, then he nodded again.

“Are you going to hurt him?”

He shook his head, paused, as if wondering whether that flat denial conveyed the nuance of his response, then shook his head again.

I let my head roll back to watch the moon, until I found even its light too dazzling. “I saw this lady speak once in Manchester; suffrage, socialism, freedom – all that. My da worked in the mill; Ma was a maid. She taught me to speak properly, like the Nightingale sisters, said a proper maid with a proper voice would go further than a factory girl. Got me my job, working in the house where Matilda lived. But when we… after we realised that there was… I had to go away. Matilda arranged for me to be a nurse, brushed my hair like I’d brushed hers and said she’d be waiting for me, that she was proud.

“I know liars: my da lied his whole life, to Ma, to his boss, to me. Matilda weren’t lying, but that didn’t mean I could stay. Ps and Qs. Proper manners. Our father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Matron thinks I come from a nice house, respectable. If she found out, she wouldn’t say a word, because I’m good at what I do and they always need more sisters. But she wouldn’t let the new girls sit with me at dinner neither. I went to join the suffragettes but they said I weren’t quite what they were looking for. I went to join the suffragists and they said I was clearly good with my hands so could make the bunting. Now the girls work in the munitions factories and the boys die walking in a straight line towards a machine gun cos men in a big room back home decide that’s how it’s gotta be. And that’s it. That’s me. That’s my story. What’s yours?”

The owl screeched and fled from the moonlight.

The cannon fired, then stopped, then fired again, as if the gunner couldn’t quite work out what he was aiming at.

In the pantry, Sister Louise cursed and muttered and mopped up a stinking mess from the floor.

In the house, the men slept, or lay awake and stared at the darkness, or pretended to sleep, and fluttered their eyelids open only when the lamplight had passed by.

In the garden, Dr Abbey stretched his arms and legs, rolled his neck up to the sky, his eyes down to the earth, and began to tell me his story.

Chapter 6

I am a truth-speaker, he said, and where I go the shadow follows.

I was cursed in Natal, in 1884. I stood by as a boy was beaten to death by a mob. I was the local doctor. I did not try to heal his wounds. His mother cursed us all by truth and by blood, but the shadow took to me and we have been together since.

I was born in London at the height of Queen Victoria’s reign. Then it was almost impossible to imagine that the sun could set on the Empire, or that white men might ever have to meet the consequences of their barbarism. We were the chosen people, leaders of the world, destined to carry the white man’s burden.

I was nearly the youngest of seven children, and as such I was permitted to choose my profession, to a degree. I chose doctor. This was not as acceptable as banker, lawyer or politician, but at least it had a certain moral probity about it. Younger sons should be vicars, dispensing wholesome wisdom to women of middling income; a doctor struck my father as a modern interpretation of this traditional path.

I studied at University College, and was a terrible physician. Our family doctor had not studied at any college at all, but had been apprenticed to an apothecary and believed there was almost nothing in this world that, if one were male, could not be cured by brisk walking with plenty of well-fed dogs for company, or if one were female by the inhalation of scented lavender and massages to the pelvic area that if illustrated in a textbook would result in said text being banned.

The reality – of stinking corpses three days out of the ground, of intestines and the crack crack crack of breaking bones, of the shark-tooth saw, of weeping cysts and black-bursting ulcers – had me vomiting on the laboratory floor and on the verge of quitting within a week. Only fear of my father’s terrible judgement kept me learning, and I was somewhat reconciled by the fact that my fellow pupils were as nauseated as I.

In time, we grew used to putrefaction, and were able to regard the corpses on our slabs and the organs beneath our scalpels as scientific exercises, to be cut, considered and cured through the brilliance of our own intellects. It was a dazzling time to be a physician, and a jubilant time to be young in a city at the centre of the world. My dearest friend Plender introduced me to alcohol, the music hall and women. Women were a revelation, which blinded me outright, and through this I was introduced to debt, which compelled me to get through my exams despite the inherent mediocrity of my character.

“Whatever we are, we are better than the alternative!” Plender would repeat, as we swung, drunk as midnight rum, through the back entrance to the morgue. “Even if we cannot cure it, we can at least cut it out!”

This was medicine’s approach to most things, and Plender at least was highly skilled with the knife and saw, merrily hacking off a leg in four minutes, determined to beat Lister at his own game and get the record down to two. His patients died regularly, of course, but everyone was still hugely impressed at the speed of the thing.

I was not that talented, so to the London Hospital I was sent to offer up a regular cascade of bad news to the desperate crawling through our door. Too poor to pay for treatment, our patients would wait until their chests were distended with the black body of the tumour, or their eyes could no longer open beneath the weight of sagging, ulcerated flesh, or they could hardly breathe from the fluid in their lungs, before finally yielding to their desperation and coming to my ward. By then there was very little I could do, and what small compassion I had in me at nine a.m. was by close of business little more than a brisk: “You’ve come too late, now you must see to the provision of your children.”

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 sulphur. Children coughing tar from the chimney stacks; bursts of pestilence that swept through eight-to-a-room 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.

I was twenty-five


  • "There is no piece of The Pursuit that is forgettable ... It is beautiful. It has, buried deep inside, a hopeful heart."—NPR
  • "True love, life, and death, what's worth dying-or killing-for: It's all here in this gripping, bloody, and haunting novel."—Kirkus on The Pursuit of William Abbey
  • "In rich, compelling prose, North weaves together the threads of imperial control, ideological conviction, love and the thrill of power. Readers will remain eager to the end for answers."—Shelf Awareness on The Pursuit of William Abbey
  • "North has established a reputation for tense, dense, science fiction/fantasy-inflected thrillers that defy facile explanations... Well-paced, brilliant and balanced."—New York Times on The Sudden Appearance of Hope
  • "Wholly original and hauntingly beautiful. North is a writer to watch."—Kirkus on The End of the Day
  • "North is an exciting voice in contemporary fantasy."—San Francisco Chronicle on The End of the Day
  • "North is an original and even dazzling writer."—Kirkus on 84K
  • "Evocative, thought-provoking... I'll read anything she writes."—Omnivoracious on 84K
  • "Another captivating novel from one of the most intriguing and genre-bending novelists currently working in the intersection between thriller and science fiction."—Booklist (starred review) on 84K
  • "Claire North is one hell of a writer."—C. L. Taylor, author of The Accident on Touch
  • "Claire North's writing is terrific, smart, and entertaining."—Patrick Ness on The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

On Sale
Nov 12, 2019
Page Count
464 pages

Claire North

About the Author

Claire North is a pseudonym for Catherine Webb, who wrote several novels in various genres before publishing her first major work as Claire North, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. It was a critically acclaimed success, receiving rave reviews and becoming a word of mouth bestseller. She has since published several hugely popular and critically acclaimed novels, won the World Fantasy Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Philip K. Dick Award. She lives in London.

Learn more about this author