Creepy, Brilliant 'Touch' Will Possess You
Hardcover, 432 pages |purchase
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There are at least two reasons why I should hate this book.
One: I have a horror of impersonation narratives. The idea of someone looking like me but running around being a jerk to my friends and family is so profoundly unsettling that I still haven't watched more than the pilot of Orphan Black.
Two: I hate stories about memory loss.
So this book, which is about entities who can inhabit and move through human bodies with only the faintest of skin-to-skin contact, and whose hosts have no memory of the time they were being "worn," ought to have been a perfect example of two terrible tastes that go terribly together.
Reader, I loved it. I fell deeper into love with it the more I read, and hated putting it down, and thought about it whenever I was forced to put it down and do other things. (I'd try to explain this away by saying I was possessed by an entity calling itself Claire North, but that's going a bit meta — and anyway I can remember reading it.)
They call themselves ghosts, these possessing entities, and they were born into bodies the same as anyone else. But violent trauma can catalyze a switch: The impulse to cling to life is so powerful that in dying, they reach out – leaving their original bodies and jumping into whoever's near enough to touch.
Our first person narrator is called Kepler — named that by Aquarius, an organization of Lycra-clad people who cover every inch of skin and dedicate their lives to hunting ghosts. The name is misleading, however: Kepler is a genderfluid being who switches pronouns according to host, can hardly remember an original name, and who, when questioned on the subject, evinces a preference for health and youth over a body's sex. Just expelled from a beloved host body by an assassin, Kepler begins to hunt for the heart of Aquarius, growing increasingly suspicious that they share a twisted secret history with each other.
Touch is a brilliantly balanced knife's edge of a book — fast-paced and thrilling, it's somehow also languorous, thoughtful, intelligently intimate. Kepler is a thoroughly absorbing and sympathetic anti-hero, trying to minimize harm while striving for survival — which is, necessarily, always at another person's expense; to exist is to violate, to steal time from others. The main plot is intercut with Kepler's reminiscences about previous habitations — a Russian duke's daughter, an Egyptian merchant, a model, a medical student, possibly a U.S. president — and time spent as an "estate agent," a ghost who does background checks on potential bodies, so other ghosts can move in with a minimum of trouble.
I kept asking myself, while reading, how it could be that I was so thoroughly enjoying a book that was so perfectly calculated to be my literary nemesis, and here, I think, is the answer: Kepler is not a trope, and the ghosts are not gimmicks. We are inhabited by Kepler's perspective even as Kepler inhabits others and tries to do well by the hosts.
Kepler is a moral, philosophical monster, a sad monster, a monster existing within appalling constraints and choosing life and love at every turn. Kepler's appeal is, in some ways, the appeal of the vampire made fresh: A long-lived intelligence that falls in love easily, that exists to love, and must balance the desire to protect and nurture the people it loves with the reality that to love them is to violate and destroy them.
Raising and addressing issues about consent, gender, empathy, responsibility, and ethics while on a high-stakes rollercoaster ride across Europe and North America is no mean feat, and I am left staggered into an awed slow-clap at everything North has accomplished here. Touch is touching, horrifying, magnificent; step into it, and it will step into you.
Amal El-Mohtar is the author of The Honey Month and the editor of Goblin Fruit, an online poetry magazine.