Warning: I have a lot to say about The Sudden Appearance of Hope, by Claire North. I have no idea if it will make any sense.
start with the first thing that struck me about the book: it's unusual
in that it has two hooks. The premise--the gimmick--is that the main
character is someone who cannot be remembered. For as long as you're
talking to her, she exists in your mind, but as soon as you leave her
presence for even a short time--a minute is all it takes--you cannot
remember ever having met her or talked to her. You can be sitting
together on a bus and talk for hours, but when you get off at the rest
stop and reboard, you will smile vacantly at her, because you will
believe you'd never seen her before. She can give you a giant stuffed
teddy bear, and by the time you get home with it you will remember
having bought it, or won it, or found it. You can watch a video of
yourself talking to her and have no memory of the conversation.
So this is the hook--this is what makes the book sound intriguing.
then this protagonist--Hope Arden--finds herself at a party hosted by a
company called Perfection. Perfection is a lifestyle app, gathering
your data and giving you suggestions and instructions, and points for
following them. Find the perfect personal trainer; are you sure you
want to eat that? Here's the haircut that would look best on you; those
shoes are gorgeous--achievement unlocked! Hope watches Perfection wreak
havoc on a new "friend" of hers, and is drawn into what I would describe
as a battle of wills between herself and this product.
early on in my reading, I felt like this was an author trying to write
two books at once, about two ideas, and that maybe they didn't fit
together very well. But now I think they come together over the course
of the story. Not that there aren't obvious ways in which the strive
for perfection and the notion of being invisible are related. The idea
of being seen, being deemed worthy, being judged--all of these are a
part of both sides of the story.
But there's more to it
than even that. Hope can never hold a job, can never have friends or
lovers (though she has conversations and romantic encounters). She is a
skilled thief, precisely because not only can no one describe her; no
one can remember that she was even there. She is a collector of facts, a
counter of objects, a reciter of words, because she must always keep
her mind busy or risk thinking too much about what she is and what she
isn't, about the things she can never have.
In some ways, this book is in conversation with North's first novel, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.
In that book, the main character lives his life to the end and is born
again, in the same year, to live through the same years again. He can
live it differently every time, but he can always remember, as no one
but one of his kind can, what will happen around him in the world. It
is an inescapable, inexplicable biological destiny that can seem like
freedom or like a curse, but can never be set down (for Harry, even in
Harry's problem is the opposite of
Hope's--Hope cannot ever make a connection with the world; Harry cannot
unmake those connections, cannot escape what has been and will be.
They're both situations that can seem despair-worthy, from the right
point of view, or liberating. Immortality, freedom from consequence.
What would you give up for those things?
As in Harry August,
the plot is driven by scientific notions that are not just hand-waved
away, but put into a conspicuous, opaque box with the word SCIENCE
written on the outside. You don't want to look inside the box--it's a
shadow theater with no meaning. There are "treatments" that change
people, and the main scientist is a neuroscientist who designed an app
that makes people "better," and also some kind of deep brain stimulation
thing. The app basically exists already in a hundred forms, but the
book paints it as soul-destroying mind control. The treatments are
treated as an inevitable next step, in a way that doesn't feel that
organic to me.
But I think I can mostly forgive all the
Swiss-cheese holes like that because this is a novel of ideas. It's a
novel that asks what perfect means (even if no one in the story really
asks that explicitly), whether gamifying life will remove our humanity,
and what it means to live a life entirely without connections. And all
kinds of corollary questions: when it's impossible for you to live by
any traditional means, what are the limits of your ethics? What elements
of interaction go into forming a relationship? (That's one of my
favorites; I've always thought about how most of your understanding of a
person exists in your mental image of that person; how does that work
without a memory?) Is terrorism ever justified?
can wave my hands with the hand-wavingest among us and take the facts
presented in this book at face value, and then follow the fascinating
question of what they mean, what they imply, and what all that says
about me and about society. It's been a long time since a book asked
such interesting questions and let its characters really wrestle with
the answers. I want a lot more of these!
(Note: I received this book from Netgalley for review.)