Rating: 2 stars
Touch is the second novel by Claire North, one of the pen names of Catherine Webb. I hadn’t heard of her in any of her guises, but a colleague saw me reading one of the Wayfarer series of books and thought I might like Claire North.
Its 423 pages took longer to read than they deserved. It was a grind at times. The central character has the sort of transient existence that makes it hard for them to have anything they care about, and the things North decided they would care about didn’t grab my attention.
I’ve seen Touch described as sci-fi and speculative fiction, but I’d class it as a thriller. It’s classic cat and mouse but with a twist. The prey has the ability to switch in and out of bodies, so that each time it seems like they might be caught or killed, they jump. Sort of like Sam in Quantum Leap, but less altruistic.
At first I didn’t like North’s writing. The initial scene-setting chapters were overly wordy and pleased with themselves. I almost gave up before I’d properly started. A little over two weeks later, I feel like I wish that I had given up at the start.
My reading experience got slightly better as the story settled into a groove, but at times it felt like North was rushing at the plot, too keen to get her next idea onto the page so that it felt less like a natural part of the story and more like a plot development point in an outline of the narrative. I was a good third of the way through before I can honestly say that I enjoyed it.
The protagonist/prey is Kepler. At the start of the novel, Kepler is being pursued by a contract killer. Kepler jumps from the body of Josephine Cebula, moments from death, into the body of a man who has stopped to help her. What follows is that cat and mouse chase beloved of thriller writers, with Kepler and the killer swapping chaser and chasee roles, punctuated with Kepler’s back story. This back story reveals the origins of Kepler’s switching ability and allows Kepler to reminisce about the people whose bodies they have occupied.
It’s hard to assign a gender to Kepler. It isn’t gender fluidity as such, or an exploration of what it might be like to be intersex or someone who identifies as a particular gender in the body of the opposite gender. Kepler starts out as one of the binary genders but over time ceases to identify as a specific gender, because of the number of times they have switched.
One thing I liked was the wry humour that came through Kepler’s character. When you’ve spent hundreds of years jumping from person to person, you gain in world weariness what you lose in personal physical substance, it seems.
There were lots of ideas all jostling for space in the narrative. I felt that there were too many and that a consequence of North not settling on a handful to focus on was inconsistency creeping in. For the first third of the book, it felt as though North was making it up as she went along, rather than working to a plot. That can work, but here it felt like a jumble of incomplete thoughts rather than an improvisation.
Once North had worked all the possible plot lines out of her system and onto the page, things started to cohere. Kepler is ancient. Kepler’s type is ancient. They are the jinn of Arabic mythology, the ghost of western folklore, the demon, the possessor, the genie. They take a body at will, surpressing its human spirit. Some take a body to regain substance, living as a human for decades. Others rent out a body for entertainment. One takes on a body to protect its human occupant from doing themselves harm. Kepler is an entity for hire, drafted in by frustrated parents to help restore the marriageability of their wayward daughters. They’re also an estate agent, finding bodies as temporary refuges for fellow entities. Most of all they’re a cultivator of aware people willing to offer them a body to hide in if needed.
Kepler and the assassin who is pursuing them are on the hunt for a murderous entity known as Galileo, Kepler because they’ve been framed for crimes committed by Galileo, the assassin because Galileo almost wrecked his employer’s project to develop a vaccine against entities and almost killed him. The pursuit is by turns high adrenaline jeopardy and lulls where nothing much happens other than Kepler reminiscing (filling in plot holes) about how they got to where they are now.
There were some nice moments of reflection towards the end of the novel, where Kepler articulates the loneliness of being everyone, jumping from body to body, never living the full existence of one single person.
I wear silk.
I wear nylon.
I loosen my tie.
I hurt in leather shoes.
My motion is constant, my skins are stationary, but by the brush of a hand on the rush-hour train
I am everyone.
I am no one at all.
At times, the opportunity to leave one person behind and pick up in the body of another without personal responsibility or consequence might seem attractive, but all of that incompleteness and lack of conclusion seemed tiring to this completer-finisher introvert.
There were hints over the final hundred or so pages that North was tiring of the constant body hopping and coming up with new guises for Kepler to adopt. Not as much as I had, perhaps, but still. It’s not a good sign when the weariness of the author comes through in the characters.
Touch isn’t a bad book. I can see why it got good press on publication. It just wasn’t for me.