Touch by Claire North took me completely by surprise. I’d never heard of Claire North. (Yes, I know. More about that later.) I hadn’t seen much pre-release buzz about the book. I don’t think I’d ever read a book from (Hachette imprint) Redhook before. I frankly thought the blurb sounded a bit too standard-horror-ish, but I picked it up anyway to try a few pages and see if it could draw me in.
Am I ever glad I did. Touch is a gloriously dark and almost perfectly executed novel. (More about that “almost” later too.) It’s so good that I set out to get the author’s first novel, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, even before I finished Touch, and then read it before I got around to writing this review, deadlines and work and sleep be damned.
I was entirely unaware of this author until I crossed paths with Touch. Since then, I learned that Claire North is the second pseudonym of Catherine Webb. Webb has by now published sixteen novels, eight of them under her own name, six as Kate Griffin, and now two as Claire North. She was born in 1986, which means she’s under 30 years old as I’m writing this. She apparently wrote her first novel when she was only 14. Discovering all of this after just having read two of my favorite pieces of speculative fiction in years was nothing short of mind-blowing for me.
(I obviously haven’t read any of the novels she wrote as Webb or Griffin yet. They seem very different from her work as Claire North: YA for Webb, and more traditional fantasy for Griffin. Whether it’s the author’s decision or the publisher’s, I can definitely understand using different pseudonyms to compartmentalize these three very different styles of fiction.)
So, Touch. Here’s how it works: the main character can transfer his consciousness to another person’s body by touching them. It’s instantaneous and physically painless. When he leaves a body by touching and “transferring” to someone else’s, the person whose body he’s leaving regains complete control of it, and for all intents and purposes, it’s as if no time has passed for them. This can result in a stunning amount of disorientation if the main character was in control for a long time: from the perspective of the body he just left, it’s as if that person blinked or blacked out for a second, only to find that days, months or even years have passed, usually ending up in a different city or country altogether.
To add another twist to all of this: the main character is not the only one with this ability. There are others, and as you might expect given the existence of practically immortal entities who live secretly among us, 1) not all of them are benevolent and/or sane, and 2) some ordinary mortals are aware of their existence and have Strong Opinions about beings who, if we can just call a spade a spade here, are able to possess anyone they want.
That’s the basic setup of the world in Touch, which is otherwise more or less indistinguishable from ours. Because of this, I’d be inclined to call this novel something like contemporary dark fantasy, but the publisher is categorizing it under Literary and Thrillers/Suspense, which are both appropriate but don’t really give a hint of the fantastical/supernatural premise that underpins the entire story. (And the novel’s third BISAC category is Science Fiction/Action & Adventure, which really doesn’t make sense. Anyway, labels don’t matter, right?) The closest comparison I can make for genre readers (who might miss this one wherever it ends up being shelved) would be Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black novels (reviewed here, here and here) but the differences between those two protagonists are so huge that it makes the entire exercise pointless.
You see, Touch’s protagonist, who goes by the name Keppler and tells the entire novel from his own tight first person perspective, is an old, if not ancient, entity. We learn how he came to be: he was busy being murdered a few centuries ago in England and then suddenly found himself in his murderer’s body, looking through his eyes while strangling the person he used to be. Throughout the novel we learn bits and pieces about Keppler’s life and the people he possesses and interacts with.
The general impression is that, aside from the whole taking possession of unsuspecting ordinary mortals thing, Keppler is mostly a benevolent person. He is well-traveled, thoughtful, and polite. What’s more, he frequently uses his unique power to improve the lives of the people he temporarily possesses.
Case in point, at the start of Touch, Keppler is using, by mutual consent, the body of a young woman who (before his arrival) was a drug-addicted prostitute: after he explained his nature to her, she allowed him to “take over”. He cleans her up and generally redirects her life so that, after the terms of their agreement are over and Keppler moves on to another body, she would be a healthy, successful young woman.
Except that, at the very start of the novel, that body is senselessly murdered. It’s not clear yet why, or who’s responsible, or whether the murderer knew that the body was “possessed” by Keppler. Keppler immediately begins to plot his investigation and revenge, starting with something only he could do: he chases down the murderer as he flees the scene and touches him, taking over his body.
And so begins a truly unique, intense, and brilliantly told story in which the “victim” of a murder possesses his murderer’s body. In the process, as the mystery unravels, the reader learns about Keppler’s personal history and the nature of his abilities, and gradually a much broader plot surfaces. The fact that Claire North can seamlessly combine these disparate elements to end up with an incredibly smooth, almost impossible to put down novel is simply stunning.
The main mechanism that makes all of this work is the main character’s wry, world-weary narration. He sounds equal parts wise, witty, and tired — an ancient being in a modern world and a new body. Here’s an example:
I am, contrary to what may be expected of one as old as I, not in the least bit old-fashioned.
I inhabit bodies which are young, healthy, interesting, vibrant.
I play with their iWhatevers, dance with their friends, listen to their records, wear their clothes, eat from their fridges.
My life is their life, and if the fresh-faced girl I inhabit uses high-powered chemical cocktails to treat her acne, why then so do I, for she’s had longer to get used to my skin, and knows what to wear and what not, and so, in all things, I move with the times.
None of which prepares you for driving in Turkey.
The Turks aren’t bad drivers.
Indeed, an argument could be made for their being absolutely superb drivers as only split-second instinct, razor-sharp skills and relentless determination to be a winner could keep you both alive and moving on the Otoyol-3 to Edirne. It’s not that your fellow drivers are ignorant of the concept of lanes, merely that, as the city falls away behind and the low hills that hug the coast begin to push and shrug against you, the scent of open air seems to provoke some animal instinct, and the accelerator goes down, the window opens to let in the roar of passing wind and the mission becomes go, go, go!
I drive rather more sedately.
Not because I am old-fashioned.
Simply because, even at the loneliest of times on the darkest roads, I always have a passenger on board.
For all its enthusiasm, this review has really just hinted at the starting position for this amazing novel. Touch is full of ideas and scenes and characters that simply beg for further discussion. There are short set-pieces that are incredibly moving. Claire North has taken a relatively simple premise and turned it into a poignant and unforgettable novel.
To go back to my earlier comparison: I believe Touch would be a great choice for fans of Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black novels, and vice versa. Claire North’s narrator is more urbane and thoughtful than Miriam. His cynicism is much gentler, and his usage of profanity almost non-existent. Regardless, they are both outsiders with dark secrets, never able to settle down, doomed to always drift along the outskirts of human society in one way or another.
There are only two aspects of this novel that prevented me from giving it a perfect 5 star rating, instead going for a solid 4.5-trending-towards-5. The first one is minor: as much as I love Keppler’s narration, he occasionally lays on the world-weary “man of style and taste” shtick a little bit too heavily for my taste. The second one is more important: I’m intentionally being vague here to avoid spoilers, but I’ll just say that the novel’s climactic finale went off the rails for me in several ways. Still, until that final 50 or so pages, this is a near-perfect novel.
As mentioned before, since reading Touch I also read Claire North’s first novel under that name, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. A review of that one will appear on this site soon, but for now I’ll already offer a few thoughts, because there are many similarities between both novels. Most obviously, both deal with immortality, although Harry August’s version is cyclical whereas Keppler’s is linear. In addition, their narrative styles are remarkably similar. One important difference, though: as brilliant as Touch is, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August sticks its dismount, making it a rare, perfect 5 star novel for me.
My recommendation: read them both.