Monday, May 16, 2016

'To be forgotten is to be free, you know that, don’t you?': The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North (Review)

Claire North is certainly one of the authors I admire the most. She takes on some of the most technically challenging and fiddly subjects to write about and is very versatile. Yet Touch, Harry August and Hope all tackle that human desire to leave a mark and to mean something. To mean something as a human being/life-form and what it is about yourself that is memorable and can leave an impression. She always challenges you to think beyond the bounds of the physical and the corporeal. In her books she has tackled the limits of gender, sexuality, time, memory and more. She is unafraid and quite unique and because of all this, I will pick up her books without hesitation.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope, a bit like Touch, is part globe-trotting thriller and part existential crisis/analysis. The focus of the plot (or one of them) is an app called Perfection which sets goals and rewards for people to ‘better themselves’. I read The Circle by Dave Eggers just a month or two before this and they definitely both explore this technological dystopian theme very well. While you’re reading, you only have to look up and around you to recognise how precariously balanced society is and how easily it could slip into something quite frightening. What Perfection is actually pushing is conformity – a very static set of ideals based on money, body-image and the like. Both The Circle and The Sudden Appearance of Hope touch upon the idea of the end of privacy, the constant need to share, the setting of goals and the reward schemes that only reward certain, approved behaviours – a subtle brainwashing and defining of worthiness. The chasing of targets and the relentless measuring of your life by strangers and trend-setters, telling you what it is to be worthy and when you deserve reward is juxtaposed with Hope’s innate condition of forgettability. The moment she turns her back, she is forgotten – by her family, her ‘friends’, by anyone she meets – except technology. The only path she leaves is digital.

Hope cannot have a job, cannot own property, cannot live in the ways society usually deems meaningful – she cannot legally exist as she is forgotten within a minute. Hope survives by becoming a criminal – an international jewel thief. It is as she sets out to steal a jewelled bracelet that Hope and Perfection are set on a collision course. Shaken by the death of someone connected to it and seeing the sinister potential of its elements of mind control, Hope sets herself a meaningful mission – to take it down.

Interestingly, Hope does meet someone like her, a fellow ‘forgettable’, who it seems becomes memorable by following the scheme of the app and letting it change him and help him conform. This leaves Hope with a heart-breaking choice – should she adopt the app herself and become memorable and known to her family, but as someone else, or honour them in retaining her own sense of integrity and difference? What if the cure is something worse than the disease? The only person who remembers Hope fully is her little sister, who has a form of brain condition.

Yet the process of writing her story is also a way of enacting meaning and leaving a trace. ‘I write this to be remembered.’ is one of the opening lines of the novel: ‘Whoever you are: these are my words. This is my truth. Listen, and remember me’. To cope Hope takes it upon herself to talk to scholars and monks ‘men and women who’d been held in solitary confinement for ears on end. You find the happiness you can, one said. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes you gotta dig deep, but it’s there, the thing inside that you can be content.’ For Hope’s condition is a life sentence of its own – her world can only be a long solitary confinement with fleeting instances of connection.

Alone you can lose yourself, or you may find yourself, and most of the time you do both’.

One of the main repeated encounters Hope has throughout her quest is with a lady called Byron, someone who seems somewhat envious of Hope’s condition – telling her that ‘to be forgotten is to be free, you know that, don’t you?’. And this is another interesting discourse that unfolds throughout the narrative – the definition of freedom, and how people would live without inhibition,  knowing they could never be caught, they could do anything, get away with anything. Byron is excited by the prospect, wanting to live without limits, not understanding Hope’s discipline (‘you have no need to conform, what’s the point? No one will thank you for it, no one will remember you.’) – but Hope comes to realise that freedom also means honouring the freedom of those around her – that self-discipline is crucial and she must impose her own limits and meaning (the idea that freedom that impinges upon the freedom of others is wrong). To some extent – you have to ‘permit yourself to be defined by the world that surrounds you’. The whole exchange and the relationship between these two women is written brilliantly – in some ways they are so similar and yet there are fundamental philosophical differences that are unpacked very neatly and effectively.

‘I impose disciplines upon myself, discourse, reason, knowledge…’
‘To fill the place where society should be?’
‘Yes. And to keep me sane. To help me see myself as others might see.’

Some of the most poignant passages come in Hope’s longing to mean something to her family and the brilliance of North’s writing shines through in one of the descriptions of Hope’s mother:

‘Mum comes in. Her hair is bright white, cut down to the surface of her skull, and age has made her face something extraordinary. Each part of it needs an atlas to describe; her chin is many chins, still small and sharp but etched with muscle and line, layered one upon the other. Her cheeks are contoured bone and silky rivers of skin, her eyebrows waggle against great parallels of thought on her forehead, her mouth is encased in smile lines and pout lines and scowl lines and worry lines and laughter lines and there is no part of her which is not in some way written over with stories’.

Hope can see all the markings of experience and all the imperfections and find beauty in them – a kind of beauty that Perfection would never recognise. She knows that her mother could never love the being that Perfection would make of her.

As a character, you pity Hope, but at no point does the book make an emotional spectacle of her tragic condition – it productively explores the nature of it and draws up on it poignantly when it needs to. The parallel plot involving the jewel heist and Perfection balances the narrative and paces it, while also cementing the relevance of these timeless, universal questions in the modern, digital age. An age in which we leave a constant digital trail but long, enduring, meaningful engagements are in decline and under threat. 

The only thing I do find with some of North's book is that it's sometimes hard to engage with, keep track of and remember the wide variety of secondary characters (if you’re not careful, you  might find yourself a bit lost) but do persevere and revisit – it’s worth it in the end and you will find yourself wanting to go back to this book again. Touch was one of my Books of 2015.

Fittingly, The Sudden Appearance of Hope is unforgettable.

*Thank you to Orbit of Little Brown Book Group UK and NetGalley for letting me read a digital ARC in exchange for honest review. The Sudden Appearance of Hope is published on 19th May 2016. 

Further quotes:

  • The past was just a present that had been, the future was a present yet to come, and only now remained, and I stood by the sea, recovering my landlegs from the road, and wept.       
  • Knowledge. What should I do with this place inside me where experience – tears of joy, shrieks of laughter, the anxiety of work, the warmth of friends, the love of family, the expectations of the world – what should I do with that place which was never filled? I put knowledge there. And in knowledge, I find myself. This sounds like an intellectual void where heart should be, but look and you may find…
  •  Look for the words “perfect woman” and you find bodies. Diagrams, explaining that the perfect face belongs to an actress with smoky eyes, the perfect hair comes from a princess; the perfect waist is barely narrow enough to support the generous breasts that balance on it; legs disproportionately long, smile that says “take me”. Photoshopped features combining the faces of movie stars and models, pop idols and celebrities. Who is the perfect woman? According to the internet, she is a blonde white girl with bulimia; no other characteristics are specified.
  • Know thyself, and know everyone else. Having no one else to know me, having no one to catch me or lift me up, tell me I’m right or wrong, having no one to define the limits of me. I have to define myself, otherwise I am nothing, just a … liquid that dissolves. Know yourself. But finding definition without all the… the daily things that give you shape…’