The inside of Claire North’s head is a strange place. She has the knack of coming up with weird high-concept scenarios combined with the talent to make them sing on the page. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was a weird take on reincarnation, Touch was a weird take on possession, and The Sudden Appearance of Hope is - well, I’m not sure what it’s a take on. The Invisible Man? Depression? Social anxiety?
What’s impressive about all this is the sheer consistency of it all; North is banging out a weird novel with a weird hook reliably once a year, and there hasn’t been any real fall-off in the quality of the writing. The characters still work, the writing is good without getting in the way of the reading, and the plotting is - well, honestly, plotting’s not her strong suit, or maybe it’s pacing; either way her books tend to end in a rush.
The big difference between Hope and the two earlier novels is that the bad guys are independent of the high concept. In Harry August and Touch, the narrator’s troubles come from other people with the same talents that he has. But Hope Arden’s problem is the kind of problem which makes conspiracy impossible. If no-one can remember you, you can do all kinds of things, but you can’t really form a club. Well, if you wanted to cheat, you could. You could have a world in which ordinary people couldn’t remember you, but your own kind could. That would have put Hope right into the same wheelhouse as the two earlier books, as a small coterie of parasites fell out about the best ways to exploit the herd.
North didn’t want to go there; she wanted Hope to be utterly alone. But then she needed something for Hope to push back against, so for the first time she needed a second concept in a book, something which Hope could fight. What she settled on was a creepy intensification of Facebook crossed with a creepy intensification of Weightwatchers. On the one hand a social media app which watches everything you do, and on the other hand a system for making you feel bad about yourself so that you’ll eat the right foods. For values of right which are more about selling you branded goods than making you eat healthily.
More than ever, North is taking a look at modern society and not liking what she sees. Perfection, the app in Hope, is a perfectly plausible extrapolation of stuff we’re doing right now. Perfection the company isn’t even an extrapolation; it’s a perfectly unremarkable specimen of capitalism. And there’s nothing all that novel about making money out of making people feel bad about themselves; it’s pretty much the established business model for every women’s magazine and all the companies which advertise in them. As if there’s any real distinction between the magazine and the advertising.
Hope is the more interesting thing. It doesn’t do us any harm to be reminded as often as possible about the rapacity of the marketing and internet businesses, but how often are we going to meet someone who no-one can remember? Hope’s a tricky character to put on the page. Harry August and the nameless narrator in Touch were engaging bounders; well, I’m being a bit unfair to Harry there. But they had a predicament which they could control and exploit. Hope is a victim of something she can’t change or even understand, condemned to a kind of solitary confinement which should have driven her completely crazy. Since no-one can remember her, she can steal anything she wants to; if she gets caught, the person who catches her will forget about her as soon as they look away. Handy. Until you realise that it’s a death sentence if she’s admitted to hospital, because no-one will remember to check on her or change dressings or even feed her. Hope’s life is almost impossible, and North has a constant struggle to balance that impossibility with cunning workarounds which will somehow let Hope get by from day to day. I did find myself wondering about driving, though it’s not as though most drivers seem to be aware of other road users even without Hope’s unique problems.
As always, it’s just a good book. There are things which don’t quite work, and the ending is rushed, yet again, but the writing’s equal to the concept, and that makes all the difference. I’ve gone past hoping North can keep it up; clearly she can. Now I’m just waiting patiently for her to do it again next year