Touch by Claire North
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Most humans are defined by the one body we get. We change ourselves only through the slow agony of dieting, exercise, plastic surgery, etc. Or we experience the dark drawbacks of the physical body - from overeating, injury, chronic illness, drug abuse. Whoever we are, the grass is always greener in someone else's body.
The narrator of Claire North's Touch knows intimately what it means to inhabit another's body. She is a "ghost" who can wear another person's body like a suit of clothes, and has been doing this so long that her original name, gender, and ethnicity no longer really matter. When she slips into another's skin, she can experience the greener grass for a while and avoid the pain of aging or the inconvenience of suffering consequences.
But a ghost also knows human beings more accurately than they know themselves, and to know someone is to love them. Which is why when an assassin tries to kill her and murders her host, the ghost decides to get to the bottom of the shadowy organization that sent him.
The ghost narrator (who goes by many names but is assigned the name of Kepler by her enemies) likes to readjust her hosts' lives. Whether that means taming the reputation of a society flirt, becoming the loving husband to a previously ignored third wife, or throwing away the drug paraphernalia of a teenaged prostitute, Kepler likes to make projects of her hosts and leave them in a better position than before her arrival. Mostly.
North explores the fascinating implications of a consciousness that can flit from one body to another like a communicable disease. Ghosts suspend a host's consciousness and hijack his or her life, operating invisibly. Hosts may wake after minutes, weeks, or years, unaware of any passage of time or their body's actions in the meantime.
There is sadness and moral ambiguity in Kepler's life. She is very good at running, she tells us, and proves it both literally and also by refusing to question the morality of her own parasitic existence. Kepler prefers willing hosts, but mostly for the convenience. She likes those with good teeth because she has an aversion to pain and the ability to endlessly avoid it. She is also fascinated by the hosts she takes, and calls her attachment to them love. It's easy to like her, though when looked at another way it's a little like having the story told by the protean alien menace from The Thing. The idea isn't new (remember The Host by Stephenie Meyer or The Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein), but North's execution is fantastic.
Touch is a complex, well-told story that moves at the pace of a thriller. I am looking forward to reading more of Claire North's books in the future.