No-one can remember Hope Arden. A minute after taking their eyes off her, she vanishes from people's memories. Photographs can be taken, text messages read, but the very fact of her existence simply cannot be retained by the human brain. Unable to get a job (her bosses forget about her the second she leaves the premises) or hold down any kind of meaningful human relationship, Hope turns to crime to survive. What was supposed to be just one more diamond job in Dubai goes south thanks to a disturbing new lifestyle app. A woman dies and Hope suddenly discovers a cause, something to fight and die for, but a battle even her extraordinary advantage may not be able to help her win.
The Sudden Appearance of Hope is the fourth of five works by Catherine Webb published under the name of Claire North. These five works are thematically linked by each character in these works having some kind of special ability, usually providing great advantages but also tragic disadvantages, and a situation they have to deal with. It's thought-provoking, interesting stuff, written with a literary bent thanks to her superior ear for language and a great eye for character.
Webb may be better known to SFF fans under her other pen-name, Kate Griffin, under which she wrote the splendid Matthew Swift urban fantasy series, as well as the YA material she publishes under her own name. She's now chalked up seventeen novels under her three pen names, giving her works a sense of confidence that comes from experience. But she's also a restless author, constantly moving between ideas and embracing new concepts (hence why the Matthew Swift series wrapped up after just four books rather than being strung out for twenty). The Claire North books - given a bolster by The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August being chosen for a TV book club in the UK and taking off as a result - seem to be her way of fully engaging with an adult readership and also experimenting in ideas and literary styles between books.
The Sudden Appearance of Hope is an aptly-named book: for me it came out of nowhere and staked a serious claim to being one of the best genre novels of recent years. The premise is simple: no-one can remember Hope Arden. If she spends more than a minute out of their line of sight, they simply forget she existed. She can be caught on video or audio, but a minute after the viewer or listener switches the device off they forget her again. It makes forging any kind of relationship, from a friendship to a romance or a professional collaboration. difficult. The only way Hope can really survive is by forging a secret online identity as _why, which she uses on the darknet to fence stolen goods and arrange commissioned crimes or pick up falsified documents.
What could simply be a gimmicky special ability is instead folded into the book's over-arcing themes of identity, validation and how people desperately try to stand out in a world swamped in social media and superficiality. The storyline revolves around Perfection, an app which monitors users' habits and advises them if they are being "perfect" or not. It rewards people trying to be perfect with points, and at higher levels they gain rewards, from stays in posh hotels and spas to money off expensive beauty treatment and lifestyle courses. When people using the app find themselves getting dream jobs, meeting their perfect partners and improving their quality of life, it explodes in popularity. But Hope soon finds something sinister lurking behind the App, both in the people that made it and the people who use it regularly, something that ties in with the media's idea of what makes people perfect and what makes people people.
The result is a timely reflection and analysis of the world we live in. An app like Perfection isn't quite possible right now, but it's probably not too far off. Of course, the book takes the concept to its ultimate conclusion, bringing in body horror and invasive brain surgery. When Hope discovers a second person like herself who has been made memorable by the surgery, she suddenly finds herself fighting the urge to use it herself, to rejoin the human race at the expense of the things that make her unique.
The result is a book with a killer high concept, a fascinating and psychologically complex lead character and which uses its premise as a prim through which to examine the world around us, from vacuous media culture to spin doctors to lifestyle gurus and tabloid editors wielding more power than any elected political official, all told through some tremendously skilled prose.
There are moments where the pace stalls a little, where the movements between story and theme and characters don't jar quite as well as they should, and occasional moments where you find yourself questioning quite how Hope's abilities work (most of which, to be fair, the book answers quite well), but these issues are pretty limited.
The Sudden Appearance of Hope (****½) is a jet-setting novel about a jewel thief which metamorphoses into a beautifully-written taken on life in the 21st Century and on the meaning of identity. It is available now in the UK and USA.