Poor Claire North.
She brought out The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August as I read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life; I pick up Touch just after reading A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge. And both times, she comes a slight second in similar and comparable fantasy scenarios.
Imagine being able to switch your consciousness, your identity, you memories – all the things that make up you – into any other body through the briefest touch. Whose body would you take on? Male, fenale; famous, anonymous, elderly, youthful? That is our narrator’s power in Touch: a functional immortality, as Harry August had, but linear rather than circular. We don’t know quitehow long he has been alive, hopping between bodies, but it seems to be counted in the centuries.
Once this premise is accepted, the novel is a thriller set in the contemporary world: an innocent protagonist, targeted by a shadowy organisation with a reclusive and mysterious sponsor; a range of international settings from the glamorous to the mundane to the downright grubby; conspiracies and the most double of double agents!
Whilst Kepler, our narrator’s flees his own attempted murder in the skin of Nathan Coyle, his would-be murderer, we uncover the truth behind that murder, the organisation the ordered it and we target the real threat hiding within them.
Interspersed with that driving narratives are repeated flashbacks to Kepler’s previous skins and experiences and his interactions with other ‘ghosts’ as they call themselves. Most of these are interesting in themselves and either explore the nature of the ghosts’ existence or are relevant to the main plot. We learn of Kepler’s role as an estate agent, finding and researching appropriate skins for long-term or short-term habitation, brief stints as Marilyn Monroe, generous acts to hosts, horrors perpetrated when wearing another’s face.
With very short chapters – a few pages at most – even the less intriguing episodes are very fleeting.
What we learn little of is the effect on the host of the habitations. It becomes apparent that the host goes into an unconscious state when inhabited, knowing and remembering nothing about what happened, assuming mundane reasons. Drifting off in a dull film. Arriving home and just not remembering the last hour of the journey. Losing a weekend to a drug-fuelled party.
Some habitations, however, lasted months or years, resulting in marriages and children, before the ghost moved on. Imagine blacking out as a twenty-year old and in the blink of an eye waking at sixty or seventy with a wife and children around you who you do not know! Or waking up and finding yourself in a job you’ve no qualifications or experience for.
Kepler describes himself as loving his hosts, often entering then consensually, but the body count around him throughout the novel is very high! And those that die – or perhaps worse are discovered with blood on their hands and a corpse in front of them and no legal defense – are abandoned and generally wholly innocent.
It is hard not to concur with Aquarius – the aforementioned shadowy organisation – that the ghosts’ habitation is a violation and, however reasonable our narrator seems to be, their existence parasitical and abhorrent.
The novel and its conceit have huge potential – and Claire North a great imaginative leap – and issues of identity and gender and consent and love are touched on but oh-so-briefly in the headlong rush of the thriller’s pace.
It was a good, quick and enjoyable read, certainly a page turner with a great pace. It was, to be frank, just what was needed after a long long year at work and the start of the summer holidays! Was it as thoughtful as A Skinful of Shadows? No. But a different style altogether.
Date: 27th August 2015