Husk | J. Kent Nessum | 2015 | Penguin | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book
In the near future, if you’re rich enough, you won’t have to die. Your consciousness will be removed from your failed body and stored for eternity in a format of your choice – as a computer programme, in a hologram or a robot. But there may be occasions when this will not do. At those times you may choose to use a ‘husk’, a human being who rents out his or her body for a maximum of 72 hours, during which time you will be pretty much free to do whatever you wish – so long, of course, that the husk’s cuts and bruises will be non-permanent and quick to heal. This is strictly illegal but, if you have enough money, then the future is yours, forever.
Rhodes is a husk, as is the woman he thinks he loves, Ryoko. Rhodes sees little alternative. He’s handsome, fit and desirable and the money he receives for prostituting his body out removes him from the fear experienced by most in these depressed times – he knows where his next meal is coming from, he has a roof over his head, and gadgets galore to numb his anxiety over the many missing hours and the aches and pains. But now Rhodes is experiencing something worse than cuts on his face and bites on his arm. He is haunted by dreams or flashbacks, there is a rage in him that he’s not felt before. And when violent accidents, even death, befall other husks, Rhodes begins to fear for his life and sanity. But when you’re dealing with dead men as powerful as these, a way out is not necessarily easy to find.
Husk presents a bleak and dark portrait of a near-future world in which the poor, or the unlucky, are only just hanging on to the means for existence. Food and water are scarce and expensive and comfortable accommodation is now a luxury.The dividing line between rich and poor has now become so great that death may become something reserved just for the poor, while salvation is solely for the wealthy. Husks can imagine themselves among the elite – they are attractive and well-paid but they are indeed just ‘husks’, shells for the wealthy to abuse and exploit. Husks have no memory of what use their bodies were put to when invaded by these rich men’s thoughts (it’s mostly men), but the way in which Rhodes calmly accepts that he needs an HIV injection after one such infestation suggests that they’re no fools.
We’re told Rhodes’ story in his own words and it’s a tale that grows ever more grim as we, and he, realise that his control is lessening. The tension increases, as does the helplessness and frustration, as fear torments his every waking hour. There is such a sadness in the relationship of Rhodes and Ryoko. They use passwords in their conversations so that they know they are both real in the moment and not possessed.
The characters of some of the clients are terrifying, they are so removed from human life, almost (occasionally completely) monsters. While we are permitted to feel pity for one or two – the man who misses his dead wife dreadfully, or another who simply wants to spend time alive again just to share a cigar and drink with a friend, but others are demons. There are times when Rhodes must make a deal with the devil.
While I found Husk a clever and fascinating novel, I did find it an extremely grim read and at some point about halfway through I realised that I admired it but no longer found it enjoyable to read. I needed to know what happened to Rhodes and Ryoko and so I read it until the end but when I got there I realised that there is no light in this novel at all. It’s darkness throughout, backed up by strong language and violence. I also found it hard to care for Rhodes, however much I wanted to. By contrast, though, the baddies of the novel are wonderfully done. The scenes in which they feature are ominously sinister.
If you enjoy horror and dark tales then I have a strong feeling that Husk may well have a strong appeal. It is certainly clever.