Touch | Claire North | 2015 | Orbit | 427p | Bought copy | Buy the book
Have you ever lost an hour? Perhaps you’ve driven to work but you don’t remember the journey or you just nodded off for a moment or two and woke up a little confused. But what if the unimaginable had happened and you’d been stolen?
Imagine a soul that has lived for hundreds of years, a bodyless soul that relies on the ‘skins’ of others to live. He or she, the distinction is forgotten, moves from body to body with just a touch, the host immediately absorbed by its ghost, only awakening disoriented and memoryless when the ghost has moved on. Such a soul is Kepler.
Kepler loves his hosts. He finds them beautiful. He cares for them, wanting to leave them in a far better place than he finds them. He delights in being enclosed by beautiful bodies, with healthy teeth and smile. He is surprised at how many people hide their pain, shocked at making leaps into old bones. But he loves them all. An especially loved host is shot down at Taksim Station, Istanbul. Her name was Josephine Cebula. Kepler only just managed in time to escape a shared death by leaping into the skin of her murderer Nathan Coyle. Kepler is driven to discover why this man was so intent on killing not just him but also his host. Why did Josephine have to die? And so begins a cat and mouse chase across Europe and beyond, with Kepler leaping from person to person, from clue to clue, set on vengeance for this young woman who died for him.
Touch is ingenious. It is an extraordinary thriller, twisting away at your mind, as it breathlessly and energetically pursues Kepler’s quarry. But the hunt is just one aspect of this really rather amazing novel. While the mystery is complex, clever and intricately played out, the real joy of Touch is Kepler himself. This unusual creature is telling us his life story, not chronologically but in leaps and jumps, presenting us to some of the men and women he’s inhabited over the many decades and to the others of his kind that have crossed his path – these are not mere digressions, they all serve the intricate plot. This is a novel rich in colour as Kepler accumulates life. Without doubt he has done evil in his time and he has been shot more often than he can count, casting off the skin before the pain hits, but his experiences and those of his kind show us the reader the nature of life for those who can only taste it, steal it, for brief days, weeks and occasionally years if they are very, very lucky.
This might be a supremely intelligent thriller but it is accessible and pleasurable throughout, not least because of Claire North’s superb prose. It is wonderfully descriptive but also spare, its structure reflecting the changing minds and bodies of Kepler. It is breathtakingly beautiful in places, especially at the end when it is simply exquisite. It never says too much, it’s just enough.
After last year’s superb The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, I was expecting great things from Touch and in many ways Touch does feel like the natural successor to Harry August – it fits in the same universe, you can imagine Harry August and Kepler co-existing – but the surprise for me with Touch came from its warmth. I wasn’t expecting such a warm and loving novel. There is violence, pain, betrayal and death here galore but it is tempered by that other side of life’s coin, love and compassion.
Kepler is an ambiguous host throughout. He doesn’t give very much away at all, we see only glimpses of his long and fluid existence, but despite all this he makes us care enormously – and not just for him. As the novel proceeds we also begin to care about other people and souls who move through the pages, sometimes briefly but always memorably. Touch is an ingenious thriller which draws out a whole range of emotional responses from the reader. Claire North is remarkable.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August