My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I have enormous respect for Claire North’s writing. She has fascinating ideas, beautiful prose, poignant characterisations, a lively yet literary style, and keen observations on society/humanity.
However, I didn’t love this novel as I hoped I would. I started off thinking it would be a 4 star rating, then a 5 star, but at some point my satisfaction dropped sharply, especially towards the end, and I am concluding on a 3 star review.
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD, read at your own risk.
The novel is about an entity, mostly referred to as Kepler, who was born a human but–upon their death, many centuries ago–discovered that they were able to inhabit the bodies of other humans. While in possession of another person’s body, Kepler’s hosts have no memory or sense of the passage of time. They lose seconds, minutes, years of their lives–however long they are inhabited by a “ghost” entity. TOUCH makes use of a dual timeline narrative structure, flipping between past events that Kepler has lived, and present-day troubles which expand on the plot.
Things I enjoyed:
The set up is fascinating and daunting in its ambition, with scope for a host of exploration. The prose runs smooth and clean and the execution of body-hopping is brilliantly done; North captures the exhilaration and ennui of a free-wheeling spirit, taking advantage to explore the circumstances Kepler can exploit.
The novel’s strength lay in North’s amazing ability to infuse Kepler with the personalities of those they inhabited while keeping Kepler’s unique self intact in each one: a brilliant fusion of psyches, and a fascinating–if somewhat understated–examination of how our physical form manifests, interacts with, and reshapes our psychology. Questions of gender, identity, sexuality, and personality are all present, deftly examined with a surgical level of skill.
Things I found lacking:
The MC has a motivation problem, imo. North sort of addresses this by building up how much ghosts care for the skins they inhabit, or at least can do in some cases, but when that is more or less the sum total of the MC’s motivation for most of the book it starts to stretch a little thin. Kepler is quite right to point out that they could simply abscond into the night, or run. Or any number of options. It did mostly work but felt forced at points, and because the motivations of the other ghosts felt likewise thin, the whole driving force of the narrative was a little anemic.
At the heart of this issue with MC motivation is (again, imo) a power imbalance in the worldbuilding. Kepler is just too strong for anything to be much of a threat, so threats and emotional obstacles have to be generated in a way that feels slightly forced.
Kepler’s relative strength in worldbuilding terms means that no human antagonist is ever going to be much of a threat. Therefore, I was unsurprised to find another ghost-entity in the antagonist’s driving seat–and unfortunately, of all the characters in the novel, Galileo felt the least real. Kepler, despite his insubstantial nature, felt very real and very visceral, even when inhabiting other bodies. Galileo did not. Antagonists don’t always have to be compelling, but it stood out to me in a book where almost everyone–including brief snapshots of myriad random passerbys–were otherweise so well drawn.
Going back to the power balance issue, I think if any of Galileo’s plans had born fruit, a better-detailed human antagonist could have worked. For example, if someone really had developed a vaccine against ghosts, or figured out how to reliably create more, then Kepler really could have been in trouble.
As it was, the interpersonal drama between Kepler and Coyle (a human character) felt much more at the forefront, whereas the stuff with Galileo receded almost to the background at times, or at least felt that way because of lackluster stakes (and the lackluster stakes themselves being the result of sketchy character motivations. And novels need stakes!!)
All that to say, the final confrontation lacked punch. I didn’t care much for Galileo, and there were very few surprises in the present-day timeline (almost all of the reveals occurred in the past-timeline). The final fight seemed extraordinarily drawn out, again with no surprises for the ending, and more weak character motivations that were seemingly dredged up at the last-minute to complicate an otherwise straightforward situation.
TLDR: I do still think the novel was worth reading and very enjoyable but I found myself frustrated by structural/craft issues at a number of crucial moments.
In the final analysis, it felt like a worse version of 15 Lives of Harry August, in that it contained similar themes and a similarish type character/plot set up, but was overall far weaker in execution, although much faster paced.