Tuesday 7 June 2016

Book Review | The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

My name is Hope Arden, and you won't know who I am. But we've met before—a thousand times.

It started when I was sixteen years old.

A father forgetting to drive me to school. A mother setting the table for three, not four. A friend who looks at me and sees a stranger.

No matter what I do, the words I say, the crimes I commit, you will never remember who I am.

That makes my life difficult. It also makes me dangerous.


Life is complicated—not least because it's so frickin' unpredictable. But there are a few things you can be sure of. One day, you and I will die; come what may, there'll be plenty of taxes to pay along the way; and, as Isaac Newton concluded, for every action, an equal and opposite reaction will happen.

In real terms, that means that what we do dictates what is done to us. Hurt someone and you can expect to be hurt in turn. Make someone happy and perhaps they'll pay that happiness back. This behavioural balance relies on our ability to remember, however. Without that... well, what would you do if you knew the world would forget you?

You'd let loose, wouldn't you?

Hope Arden, for her part, does exactly that in Catherine Webb's third novel as Claire North, which, like Touch and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August before it, is an engrossing, globe-trotting interrogation of identity that sits comfortably between Bourne and Buffy.
For a while after I'd been forgotten, I toyed with becoming a hitman. I pictured myself in leather jump suits, taking down my targets with a sniper rifle, my dark hair billowing in the wind. No cop could catch me; no one would know my name. I was sixteen years old, and had peculiar ideas about 'cool.'
Peculiar, to be sure, but so is Hope's very particular predicament.

You'd be forgiven for forgetting someone you see on the street; even someone you speak to, briefly. But neglect to remember your best mate and that relationship's in dire straits. Fail to recognise your son or your daughter and you've got a problem with a capital P. North's poor protagonist has had to deal with that every day since she came of age, in her every interaction with everyone she's ever met. Never mind the network of people she'd need to know her if she had a hope in hell of holding down a normal job: she's a complete stranger to her parents, and her closest friends look at her like an interloper.

It's a credit to her character, then, that Hope—"having no one else to know me, having no one to catch me or lift me up, tell me if I'm right or wrong, having no one to define the limits of me"—still holds the sanctity of human life in high regard. So scratch that career as an assassin.

Instead, she uses her inimitable anonymity to steal. Merely to make ends meet, in the beginning; to pay her way in a world that won't notice in any case. But before long, she starts five-fingering bigger things—mayhap to make more of a mark. And she does... if only on paper. As of the offing of North's new novel, an inspector with Interpol has been hot on Hope's heels for years. He's even caught her on occasion. Alas for Luca Evard, "a good man" by any measure, even he has forgotten that fact.

That said, there's hope for him yet, because one day, his quarry does something... unusually stupid. In the process of planning her next theft, she meets Reina bint Badr al Mustakfi, and in her, sees someone sweet and sad and overshadowed. Someone like Hope herself, in short. Someone whose sudden suicide makes all that follows intensely personal as opposed to professional.

Had Hope spent a little longer looking into the organisation she holds responsible for Reina's unfortunate fate—the all-powerful owners and operators of a pervasive program called Perfection, which functions like a lifestyle-based Facebook—she'd surely have realised what she was up against and stayed a ways away, but nothing's going to stop her now. As planned, she nabs a necklace of diamonds from a party of Perfection's finest in Dubai, but when she comes to sell her prize on the black market, she finds herself in the line of fire of a man who goes by Gauguin and has none of Inspector Evard's integrity.

Hope barely escapes the subsequent confrontation, but rather than running from the fire, she strides straight back into it when someone with a similarly vested interest in tearing Perfection apart pays her to purloin the software at its centre:
It wasn't merely the £1.2 million that Byron promised upon completion of the job that gave me a sense of ease; it was the job itself. 
I was going to Tokyo to crack open the little piece of software that seemed to obsess both Byron and Gauguin, whose name had haunted me around my travels between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. I was going to steal Perfection, and it was good.
On the surface, The Sudden Appearance of Hope is the story of that job, and though there's a touch too much table-setting, it's a tense and twisting thing when it gets going, complete with regular reversals and revelations that raise the stakes at the same time as changing the goals of the dangerous game our tragic protagonist is playing.

The emotional focal point of the fiction is Hope, of course, and her attempts to understand what's wrong with her, in order to either correct it, or accept it. Initially, she wants nothing more than to make herself memorable—not a problem for North, I'd note—and for all the repellent tenets it represents, Perfection offers her that possibility... but at what cost? What is she willing to sacrifice simply to stand a chance of being known by her mother or a lover? And if she was known, would she be wanted? These are questions Hope wrestles with repeatedly, and they ground her comprehensively conflicted character marvellously.

The precarious situations she gets herself into in the interim, and somehow has to get herself out of again, would be more than enough to sustain most stories of this sort. But remember, readers dear: this is a Claire North novel. Claire North novels are shiny and exciting on the surface, sure, but they're also progressive and introspective—as chilling, invariably, as they are thrilling—and The Sudden Appearance of Hope is no exception in that respect.

Not only does it underscore the superficial nature of the age we exist in, it also explores the notion of knowledge, sets its sights on the effects of hysteria, and—in extricating the present from the fug of the future by way of a perspective that lives only in the moment, a woman who is effectively "dead in all but deed"—exposes the absolute necessity of now.
I exist in this physical world as sure as stone, but in the world of men—in that world that is collective memory, in the dream-world where people find meaning, feeling, importance—I am a ghost. Only in the present tense am I real.
The Sudden Appearance of Hope is North's longest novel, if I'm not very much mistaken, and I suppose some of the seams between its many sections show. Most notably, the first third is thick with plot, and other than Hope herself, the narrative's other characters are nowhere to be seen until the second act starts.

That's going to be too much for some, and not enough for others, but rest assured: North addresses both of these problems well before winningly bringing "all things [back] to where we had begun, back to Dubai, back to Reina, the summer sun and a bunch of stolen diamonds," and in every other significant sense, The Sudden Appearance of Hope is effectively unforgettable.


The Sudden Appearance of Hope
by Claire North

UK & US Publication: May 2016, Orbit

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1 comment:

  1. I really enjoy North's books, and this didn't disappoint. She examines what the meaning of identity and society are when you only live through the bodies of others, or live the same life repeatedly, or are a person no one can remember, as is the case with this book. Good tension and world-building as well as interesting philosophical questions.