A new book from Claire North is always an exciting thing to see and read, and the lovely people at Orbit gave me a review copy through NetGalley. And this is North’s best book yet. In The Sudden Appearance of Hope, North introduces Hope Arden, a woman who no-one can remember. Mere seconds after she passes from sight, every memory of seeing or interacting with Hope disappears, even though physical and digital evidence such as photographs and emails remains.
Hope makes her life as a thief. Her forgettability enables her to case targets without arousing suspicion and to get away after a robbery by simply hiding for a while. The novel opens with Hope planning to steal a famous necklace from around the neck of a Middle Eastern princess, in the middle of a reception to launch a new app called Perfection, which promises rewards for self-improvement. Following the theft Hope finds herself in the middle of a feud between the makers of Perfection and a woman known as Byron who wants to bring down the company. Hope is hired to steal the source code for Perfection, in exchange for research and treatment that might finally make her memorable.
The examination of identity is a recurring theme in North’s work. In The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, the title character gets to live his life over and over again, retaining the knowledge and skills of each lifetime. In Touch, the being known as Kepler jumps from body to body, borrowing lives and leaving them changed. But in The Sudden Appearance of Hope, North examines how we are defined by our relationships with others.
Hope’s life is an extremely lonely one. Rejected by a family who don’t recognise her, she is forced to make her own way in life. She has no friendships, living instead a series of first impressions from others. She can get to know others, but she will always be a stranger to them. Even the time Hope spends with Byron is dependent on Byron keeping thorough and detailed notes and recordings of all their conversations. But even then, Byron’s interactions with Hope are necessarily informed by her own second-hand impressions. But how truly can we know a person anyway? North is externalising the fallibility of our own memories, which always give a partial (in both senses of the word) perspective on a person or events, filtered through a person’s own preconceptions. And with Hope a person from an ethnic minority, there is a subtext here about the relative invisibility of some groups in society.
Perfection as an app also provides a biting commentary on contemporary celebrity culture and how much of our personal information we share with others and with corporations. The app encourages people to aspire to and work towards an ideal. The version of Perfection presented is based on a celebrity culture of carefully posed and filtered Instagram pictures and feel-good aphorisms that are ultimately pretty shallow. Compliance with Perfection’s recommendations enables a person to earn points. Points unlock rewards, from selected partners, and those who progress to the highest levels become an elite of beautiful and successful people living a Made In Chelsea-like existence of glamorous parties and holidays that is at its heart ultimately pretty unsubstantial.
But as a wise friend said once, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.” Perfection speaks to our world of big data, where corporations harvest information about us and our online habits, building profiles to sell us services and tailor the news that we see. All in the name of profit, and with minimal regulation. We consent to share our personal data for the quick thrill of an online personality quiz. Perfection can’t be that far away.
The Sudden Appearance of Hope pulls off the perfect trick of being a taut, pacey thriller that critiques the contemporary world and explores the nature of identity.
Goodreads rating: 5*