The Sudden Appearance of Hope – Claire North

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*

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The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – Claire North

What would you do if you could live your life over again, with the knowledge and experience you’ve gained in this one?  That’s the question posed by Claire North in her Arthur C Clarke Award-nominated novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.  Those known as kalachakra or ouroborans face an eternal Groundhog Day, born to the same parents and living through the same events over and over again.

But Harry August isn’t just fated to be reborn over and over again.  He is a ‘mnemonic’, someone with perfect recall of everything he’s learned and experienced throughout all of his many lives.  Over the first few he comes to terms with his existence, cycling through mental health problems, spirituality and science in a search for an explanation for his condition.

Harry connects with generations of other kalachakra through a loose, global organisation called the Cronus Club.  Each chooses to spend their multiple existences in different ways, but all obeying the convention that no-one should seek to alter the course of history.  But that comfortable existence changes for Harry when he learns that someone is changing the future and accelerating the end of the world.  What follows is the story of Harry unravelling the mystery and saving the future.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August gives us a fascinating insight into how we grow and change and how our experiences shape us as individuals.  That knowledge and experience cannot help but influence our actions and the approach we take to the issues in our lives.  For the ourobourans, death and injury hold no fears (beyond the inconvenience of having to relive childhood and puberty), leading to a low appetite for risk and a potential longer term strategic view that eludes those of us consigned to a single life.  Harry is content to spend several of his lives preventing the premature end of the world, far in the future.  But for many, the endless cycle of repeated existence leads only to endless rounds of fruitless hedonism.

Where the novel excels for me is in the portrayal of Harry’s relationship with Vincent.  The friendship between them is profound and fully-realised, despite the dark turn that it takes.  There are no pantomime villains in this novel, just competing visions of what the role of individuals in society should be.  Is our role to promote human development, or to live a good life helping others?

But that strong portrayal of male friendship comes at a price.  Where the novel falls down for me is in its portrayal of women.  They are largely absent, falling into the category of prizes/rewards (Harry’s wife Jenny),  helpmeets/henchpeople (Virginia and Charity) or are used simply to illustrate the implications of the ultimately constrained life of the ourobouran (Akinleye).  It’s a disappointment, given how well North’s more recent novel Touch deals with questions of gender and identity.

Goodreads rating: 4* 

Touch – Claire North

Claire North is a prolific writer.  She is also published as Catherine Webb (YA fiction) and Kate Griffin (adult fantasy).  Her novel The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August was shortlisted for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award (I haven’t read it yet, but plan to later this year).  Touch is her follow up novel, and Orbit kindly gave me a review copy via NetGalley.

Touch follows a creature we know only as Kepler.  At the point of a very violent death, Kepler touches his murderer and their consciousness transfers, leaving them possessing their murderer.  Ever since, Kepler has been able to move from host body to host body by touching another person. They have jumped from person to person for centuries, spending shorter and longer lengths of time in any host body, some willing, some not.

Kepler is not the only such ‘ghost’, and has in part made a living as an ‘estate agent’, meticulously researching and identifying potential hosts for other ‘ghosts’.  For a fee, of course.  Many of those hosts are willing ones, choosing to exchange a portion of their lives for compensation.  Where Kepler takes unwilling hosts, they choose the vulnerable, taking them out of abusive situations and transforming their lives once they move on.

But there are organisations hunting and seeking to destroy ghosts.  When Kepler’s host is murdered on the Istanbul subway by just such an organisation, this triggers a rollercoaster plot of intrigue and revenge that forces Kepler to confront their own past and actions.  Kepler tracks the conspiracy back to its source, piecing together the clues while on a madcap flight across Europe.

Throughout there are fascinating meditations on identity.  We know little about Kepler.  Nothing about age or original gender.  Yet Kepler remains a fully-realised person, who unlike some of the other ghosts, becomes and identifies strongly with each host.  Kepler sees below the skin, identifying the inner beauty in a person: the mix of accumulated experiences and potential that defines each of us.  The body-shock horror of possession is present, but Kepler is such a benign being that it is hard to see them as anything other than a sympathetic character.  Despite confusion at having lost a period of time, most hosts are left with their lives improved in some manner.

Touch is a rollercoaster thriller that builds to a dramatic climax.  It’s a slick and very entertaining page-turner.  Highly recommended.

Goodreads rating: 4*.