I’ll be honest. I feel like I’ve been reading The Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul Hardisty (Orenda Books) for a month! In actuality, it’s only been a week but what an adventure it has been!
Set predominantly in Yemen, the main protagonist, Claymore Straker finds himself literally “between a rock and a hard place” when he is kidnapped with his friend and driver, Abdulkader, by a terrorist organisation, and told to use his position as a contractor for oil company Petrotex to investigate a mystery illness that has befallen the locals and is killing their children. A notorious terrorist, Al Shams, gives Clay a deadline and an ultimatum: find the cause and expose this illness that he suspects has been caused by the activities of Petrotex or Abdulkader dies.
Clay has had a troubled past, having had a stint in the South African military that has left him with some mental battle scars and a financial commitment: the healthcare costs of his comatosed best friend. Nursing a desire to right some wrongs from his past, Clay uses his scientific expertise to test the local waters to find out if Al Shams is right. As Clay faces a serious conflict of interest, (the life of his friend against his career) he begins to wonder who the bad guys really are.
I’m not really sure how I would categorise this novel. It is a thriller of sorts but with a political and scientific tone. What I will say is that it certainly gives food for thought. At a time where terrorism, corporate and political corruption seem to be commonplace in world news, this novel suggests a link between them, albeit in a fictional sense. As Hardisty tells a story of various political and corporate agencies working in cahoots for a supposed “greater good”, the (perhaps cynical) reader can’t help but consider if there is some truth in the fiction.
Hardisty also describes the how the faith of the locals provides them with an envious sense of freedom in their belief that Allah determines everything. Abdulkader is a perfect example of this sentiment. As Clay remonstrates and fights to control the next course of action, Abdulkader is calm in the knowledge that he will die when Allah determines it. He shows no fear or panic. He seems to find an inner peace in the thought that he has no control of his fate, that what will be, will be. Clay denies this deterministic ideology but comes to realise that his own fate is controlled by the people he is surrounded by and powers beyond his reach, again to maintain the “greater good”.
As the reader follows Clay’s plight, they are treated to some glorious descriptions of the Yemen landscape. This novel is rich in detail, reminding me of Charles Dickens’ narratives. Obviously the settings are very different to Dickens’ locations but the intricate description of the geological landscape is articulate and beautiful. The multi-sensory journey through the country enhances the reading experience considerably and is well worth the extra pages. The contrast between the materialistic western lifestyles and the simple lifestyles of the Yemeni people further enhances the sense that the Western world is invading this country for its natural resources at any cost, including the lives of the poverty-stricken Yemeni people. Clay doesn’t concern himself with the part he plays in the process of manipulating the locals with bribes to facilitate Petrotex’s extraction of Yemen’s spoils until he is faced with the reality that children are dying as a result. Haunted by reminders of his past mistakes, he is determined to expose the corporate “fat cats” who make decisions based on financial gain with no concern for the human life cost.
There is, of course, the obligatory love story, which shows Clay’s vulnerable side.His love for Rania is fraught with difficulties, as she fights with her religious beliefs and her mission in the Yemen and Clay wonders if she can be trusted, as he suspects that there is more to this beautiful journalist than meets the eye. However, any reader would undoubtedly want their relationship to succeed as they work together to try to solve the mystery of this strange illness.
There is definitely a sense that just as you think you have worked it all out, Hardisty throws in a curve ball which throws your entire theory out of the water, and just as you think that Clay has found someone who can help him blow the situation wide open, there is another layer of corruption to unearth. As a reader, I was willing Clay to find that one person who he could completely trust, just so he wasn’t alone against the corporate and political machine.
This is a fantastic novel and the character of Clay Straker holds great promise for future novels. Hardisty writes with incredible passion and technical precision and the reader can never be quite sure who is good and who is bad, which keeps the reader gripped to the end. His exquisite descriptions of Yemen and the extensive scientific knowledge that he brings to the narrative provides the reader with an epic reading experience that will have them yearning to know what happens next. I’m certainly looking forward to future Clay Straker adventures, but for now, I’m going to spend some time recovering from this one!