Tuesday, November 11, 2014

'I am no one. I am Kepler. I am love. I am you' - Review: Touch by Claire North

Before we begin - if you have a moment and enjoy what I do - please vote for me in the UK Blog Awards: http://www.blogawardsuk.co.uk/candidates/the-literary-tree/
*I received this book as an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review
In his final moments, Kepler (one of the awesome things about this novel is that gender is kind of irrelevant but for the sake of ease I’m just going to refer to Kepler as a ‘he’) desperately reaches for the man who is murdering him and jumps for the first time. A simple touch in the raging heat of heightened trauma triggers an ability to switch between bodies. He inhabits them like houses and often cherishes them more intimately than a lover. The brutal and inexplicable murder of one of his ‘hosts’ sets Kepler on a quest for answers and a dab of vengeance against the mysterious organisation hot on his heels. Touch is a complex, considered and original thriller which will take you on a ride across the world; crossing borders, swapping skin and ultimately seeing through different eyes.

Claire North (one of the pseudonyms of Catherine Webb) takes on this premise – a challenging one to do well – and doesn’t turn it into a gimmick. Crucially, for me, she doesn’t skirt around the deeper, existential nature of the subject. There are plenty of sci-fi novels and films about body-snatchers, invaders or possessions but North has written something wholly unique. Action scenes are adrenaline fuelled with the ambitious quick-change of identities, achieved through some clever writing tricks and formatting. For all his switching, the reader never loses trace of Kepler’s distinct identity.

The only issue I had with Touch is that it is pretty long, and moves at such a pace, that it is therefore quite a challenge to maintain focus and keep track of everyone and everything going on. I began to care less about the plot (hard to stay engaged for that long, but I didn’t mind because I still enjoyed the other aspects) and more about the way Kepler and these ghosts were searching for meaningful existence - and the moral implications of their nature. I have delayed over this review because I feel I cannot do the book and the complexity of its subject matter justice, analytically, until I have read it again for clarity and honed in on certain supporting characters. I think there’s a lot there to draw out so this is an endorsement rather than a criticism!

The way this book explores love and relationships, when it does, borders on revolutionary (you could argue it explores concepts like pansexuality). Gender is certainly unimportant to Kepler, who learns to appreciate the nuances of human behaviour:

‘You have no preference – for either sex, I mean?”
“I have a preference for good teeth and strong bones, I replied. “I have a preference for clear skin and, I must admit it, I have something of a weakness for red hair, when I find it, and it’s real”

Couple this with a stunning meditation on beauty:

“Beauty is a hard attribute to measure. I have been a long-necked model with golden hair, my lips fresh, my eyes wide, my skin silk. And in this guise I found it hard to walk in my tight red heels, and bewailed how quickly my skin lost its sheen when not pampered with a regime more time-consuming than sense. The volume of my hair was lost after a single wash, the fullness of my lips cracked within a day. No more than a week was I this model of fine proportions before irritation at the maintenance drove me on to simpler pastures. It is not beauty, in an eye, a hand, a curl of hair. I have seen old men, their backs bent and shirts white, whose eyes look up at the passers-by and in whose little knowing smiles there is more beauty, more radiance of soul, than any pampered flesh. I have seen a beggar, back straight and beard down to his chest, in whose green eyes and greying hair was such handsomeness that I yearned to have some fraction of him to call my own, to dress in rags and sweep impetuous through city streets. The tiny woman, four foot eight of purple and pearl; the chubby mother, her bum heaving against denim jeans, her voice a whip-snap between supermarket aisles. I have been them all, and all of them, as I regarded myself in their mirrors, were beautiful.”

I adored these passages in the book and Kepler’s personal, inner struggle is deeply moving:

“Will put his hand on my arm and said, “I can see you now.” “See what?” “You,” he replied. “Doesn’t matter who you’re wearing, where you’ve come from; I wait by the car and when you come to find me, I know it’s you.” “How?” He shrugged. “I dunno. Something in the way you walk. Something in the way you look. Something old. I can recognise you, whoever you are. I know who you are now.” I tried to answer and found I had nothing. My eyes were hot, and I turned my face away and hoped he didn’t see me cry.”

I can’t praise North enough for this. Kepler is also certainly a morally conscious ghost. He often specifically chooses people whose lives are in a bad place in order to put them on a better path. Sure, he may not have a right to do this – but given his situation, it is one of the more positive ways of using his abilities. He can be charitable in his invasion (though sometimes he drugs the body he is in so there is some kind of explanation for their confusion and memory loss).

“I look at people in the same way an architect might look at a great house” – or perhaps how you might look at a house with potential for improvement/renovation. He explains that ‘everyone needs a hobby, and everyone was mine” – he has to find a meaningful way to live, since he must exist in someone else’s skin. But he is also aware of all the issues – the person who cannot explain a period of memory loss and with their life changed around them, their body used (sometimes sordidly) – “a blink of the eye, and all things change. Consequences are only for the ones who stay behind” and “Move on to the next life, bigger, better than before. The next life is always better”. His is a life of constant movement, constant change, never-ending – and to be recognised is both his greatest desire and his greatest fear.

*this quote may contain minor spoilers*

“I’ve known Galileo for nearly a hundred years. He – it – loves to be loved. It is all that we ever want. We are beautiful and we are wealthy and people love us for it, but it is not us that is loved, merely the life we are wearing. I loved Josephine. I was… happy when I was her. I was beautiful as Josephine. I was a person when I was her, I was Josephine. Not some shadow playing a part, but her, whole and true, a truth that was more whole than anything she had been. It’s that that makes beauty. Not leg or skin or breast or face, but wholeness, total and true. I was beautiful as Josephine, and Galileo… hasn’t been beautiful for a very long time”

There’s this overarching question throughout of ‘do you like what you see?’ – it seems to drive everything for the ghosts and its meaning only becomes obvious as you read on. It's achingly beautiful and resonant.

“We always like what we see, people like us. We always see how something else could be better than what we have. Perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps this face, perhaps these hands, perhaps… perhaps I will be better. Perhaps no one will care for the things I did when last I was someone else. Perhaps someone will love me. Perhaps they will love me. Perhaps if I love them enough, they’ll have no choice but to love me in return. Do you like what you see? we ask, and the answer is yes, of course. I love it. I love it. If I am it, will you love me?”

(Could Touch be hinting at certain aspects of modern society - always wanting more; the things we'll do to be loved; changing appearance and behaviour; the grey area of the internet where identities can be assumed; posing as another; the age of the image; the age of instant gratification; the age of technology and celebrity - why do people act the way they do?) 

The writing is stunning; the action – at times – exhilarating; the depth and emotion – always – thought-provoking and touching.

There are ghosts in society. 

It could be you. 

Touch is out Feb 2015

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