Touch by Claire North

I wanted to review something published by Orbit, and since I can’t bring myself to tackle the daunting challenge of addressing Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time series (epic is an understatement; I’ve read 8 out of the 14 and each one is massive) I thought I’d tell you about Touch. It was published in February, and the great news is that the paperback comes out on the 27th of this month. Great news, because it’s a great story!

Touch coverTouch starts with an interesting concept, and it’s this: there are entities referred to as ghosts, who have the ability to jump from one human body to another by merely touching them. They transfer their consciousness and personality to the new host – or ‘skin’ – during which time the host’s own mind is effectively asleep. When the ghost jumps to another skin, the host wakes up with no recollection of what happened while possessed. The protagonist, referred to as Kepler, though that might not be her real name, is one such ghost. I’m going to continue calling Kepler ‘she’ and ‘her’, even though she ‘wears’ many men in the novel, because it’s just going to be easier for me this way. Not so many he/she’s to contend with. Are you with me? Good. Now let’s delve further.

The author’s concept allows her some great luxuries which she takes full advantage of. Since Kepler uses many hosts in the novel, and since she has seemingly been around since the 18th century, she, as the first person narrator, gives us fascinating descriptions of inhabiting different bodies. The descriptions are unusual, because unlike us, Kepler has the benefit of comparison. She wonders whether her host realises that he habitually holds his shoulders so tensely, or that another’s gums shouldn’t feel that way, or that another is wearing the wrong shoe size. The descriptions are many and varied, and when you’re reading this book, it really does make you look at people differently; it adds another element to people-watching (oh, come on, we all do it from time to time), it adds the compulsion to imagine what it’s like to be that tall, or to have a bushy beard, or wear high-heels and a heavy rucksack simultaneously, or to walk around the underground with jewellery which is obviously that expensive. The lives of others: this novel explores them from a unique vantage.

Touch is not, however, a meandering, philosophical treatise subtitled ‘How Marvellous the Multitudinous Diversities of our Species‘. Kepler might be from the 18th century, but North (pen name for Catherine Webb) is not. Touch is in fact an incredibly fast-paced, action-packed thriller. The chapters are short – there being 88 in 426 pages gives you an idea – and the scenes lurch from the present to flashbacks of Kepler’s previous lives, which are as interesting and entertaining as they are informative of her character and her current predicament.

That predicament goes thusly: a secret organisation which knows about ghosts is after her. She is almost killed at the beginning of the story, but jumps out of her host to avoid being shot. The agent chasing her shoots her last host, Josephine, anyway. It becomes apparent that this is not the first time in history that ghosts have been hunted, but while Kepler usually just avoids their notice – concealment is easy when you can be anybody – this time she is compelled to discover more about this organisation. This time, they killed Josephine, a host whom she loved, and she wants to know why.

Why she loved Josephine, the ways in which ghosts love, and how they maintain constant personalities (or don’t) when always changing into somebody new, are the most pertinent questions to arise from this unique set of circumstances. The most subtle strand of the narrative, and the one which interested me the most, is Kepler’s self-analysis, the questioning of her own identity which changes through the course of the novel. What I feel was slightly lacking – though I accept that this is more a question of taste than a criticism of craft – was a bit of flesh to the scenes. The story spans many locations, but Kepler’s seen it all before, and so we as readers don’t get to, because she is uninterested. In any case, despite usually being jaded by the modern penchant for writing episodic novels which are so punchy in style (I always end up considering society’s dwindling collective attention span and therefore feel somewhat patronised), despite this prejudice of mine, Touch is very well written and well worth your time. One thing I will say for the style … when combined with an excellent idea for a story, it makes a book very difficult to put down.

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