21 March 2015

Review: Touch, by Claire North

Touch
Claire North
Orbit, 2015
Hardback 426pp

I bought my copy of this book from Goldsboro Books in London.

Following last year's The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, North has written another book based loosely around the theme of multiple lives. This isn't a sequel or a prequel, or explicitly in the same setting: but some of the preoccupations are similar, as is the deftness with which she explores the concept - and the absolute humanity of her approach.

While Harry August was based on repeated, looping lives lived one after another, and so might be characterised (if loosely) as a "time travel" book, Touch follows "ghosts" who are able to occupy - possess - a body, replacing the personality and knowledge of the "host" with their own. Not such a bad thing if it simply means you lose a few minutes on the Tube or perhaps a couple of hours of a long train train journey.  More of a loss if the "ghost" "wears" you for ten or twenty years, during which you marry, have children, and grow old - before being shed like a warn out set of clothes.

I'd characterise the basic theme here as being more vampiric: it's about time stolen, missing relationships, youth taken away, lives eaten up.  That's no less true for the central character (we never learn their original gender) being likeable and, on the whole, well intentioned.

Kepler (not her/ his real name) has lived - stolen - many lives.  As the book opens, he/she is Josephine Cebula, holidaying in Istanbul.  Josephine is a willing host, giving up six months of her time for a payment which will set her up and make a new life.

Except it won't, because someone has murdered Josephine. Someone is hunting Kepler down. So begins a thriller like no other I've read, a chase across Europe worthy of John Buchan at his best, as Kepler tries to find who is targeting her/him, and why.  Along the way we learn about Kepler's past ("Kepler" is the assassin's codename for the "entity" that narrates the book - we never hear what his/her real name is) - from "birth" as  ghost in a dark London alley, to life as an "estate agent", researching bodies for other "ghosts" to wear, to lost loves, lost lives and - always, always - guilt and regret at what Kepler must do to survive.  But it's repressed guilt, one senses, because what is the alternative?

Other ghosts find a way out, whether through madness or seeking death: one inhabits only the bodies of the terminally ill, but can never, quite, dare to stay in residence to the end, another rejoices in blood and slaughter.  What does Kepler want to be? "Do you like what you see?" he (or she) repeatedly asks - or is asked - confronted with another strange face in the mirror, another set of unknown relatives, friends, colleagues, acquaintances. Do you like what you see, and who are you? Really?

It is a book full of sympathy and heart, exposing the price an immortal creature (I think we must assume Kepler and his kind to be immortal, for so long as they can bear to be alive) would exact, and the price it would pay.

It is also chilling and compelling - more chilling than any vampire story, either of the classic or modern type, and more compelling then any mere thriller.

A fine book, read it now!





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