My name is Hope Arden, and you won't know who I am. But we've met before....
It started when I was 16 years old. A father forgetting to drive me to school. A mother setting the table for three, not four. A friend who looks at me and sees a stranger.
No matter what I do, the words I say, the crimes I commit, you will never remember who I am.
That makes my life difficult. It also makes me dangerous.
The Sudden Appearance of Hope is an unforgettable tale of one woman's quest for identity.
"[Narrator] Gillian Burke's performance is unforgettable. It's smooth, polished, and oh so graceful.... Burke's performance is as addictive as the story itself." (AudioFile)
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Thought-provoking, heartbreaking, memorable
I haven't read it in print, but the narrator was excellent and many internal dialogs seem like the kind of material that works better spoken then read.
Hope sitting outside of her parents' house and looking in, running through how she could interact with her mother, yet knowing they would not remember her, was incredibly sad. On the flip side, it was bittersweet to realize that her younger sister (who had a mental disability) could remember her and when they reconnect later in the book, you feel a sliver of hope for human connection.
I found this book engrossing almost immediately. Claire North has a knack for giving her characters depth and feeling and normalcy, while simultaneously providing them one isolating and inalienable oddity that makes them other and apart from the rest of humanity. The peculiarity of the protagonist of the book, the eponymous Hope, is that she is not memorable. On first glance, this seems a minor thing - but this does not mean she is ordinary or has a common face or just isn't all that interesting. It means, as she approached her 16th birthday, people who had known her all her life, slowly began to forget her. Forget she was in the room, forget she was in the house, forget she went to your school, and eventually, entirely forgot who she was. She would flit away from one's short term memory and never imprint on one's long term memory. Her mother and father forgot who she was. And what seems a simple conceit - a main character who people can't remember - becomes a central pivot to explore loneliness and relationships and society and what it means to be human. If no one remembers you, you can't hold down a normal job or get regular care at a hospital, you can't date or make friends, you are forever an unknown quantity and unmoored to your surroundings. In response to this inability to attach to anyone, Hope becomes an accomplished thief (usually of jewels) and makes her way in the world, filling the spaces where human interaction would be with knowledge and trying to stay connected to sanity through discipline and professionalism.
North takes this epic plot twist, this woman who technology remembers (CCTV, online chats, etc.) but everyone else forgets, and adds in another character, albeit one that is purely technology. The book pairs Hope's daily life with a larger plot involving an app called Perfection. Perfection offers its namesake to users - points add up for good choices, subtracted for bad, coupons and invitations to services and events that make you more perfect. Through this app, the author is able to explore many issues coming to a head in society (the intrusiveness of technology, the striving for impossible looks, the push to assimilate, the shallowness of thought, the annihilation of individuality, the trading of privacy for convenience). The central story and action that unwinds throughout the book is triggered by Hope stealing the sourcecode for the app, followed by the exploration of whether the app's algorithm for perfection is vile and destructive, what lengths another character will go to in order to destroy it, and whether the app (and treatments it suggests) could make Hope memorable.
In the end, the blend of ideas and characters, along with plenty of action and pathos, made the book difficult to put down. Highly recommended for people who like their heroines with a quirk, the technology with a grain of salt, and their morality in a gray area.
- S. Yates
A Philosophical Novel Wrapped in a Good Story
Hope Arden has inside-out-amnesia. That is, while she can remember the world, the world forgets her. Her photographs remain, and she can leave a trace in documents and on the internet. But, if you have an interaction with her, you’ll forget her and your actions alongside her.
On the one hand, it gives her what one character insistently describes as the ultimate freedom, the endless capacity to reinvent herself. Without a past, without the capacity to leave a mark on the world around her, she can do things the rest of us could never imagine. She is, for instance, a superb thief. She can pick up an item in plain view, duck behind a corner for a few seconds, and walk back again, forgotten and unsuspected. She also proves to be an unparalleled investigator, someone who can interrogate a particular witness, get a piece of the story, and then come back a minute later to start the interrogation again using those new bits to leverage out harder to find ones.
More broadly, though, Hope experiences her condition as a curse. It hurts when her own parents forget her, at first selling her things because they don’t recognize them as hers and later losing all sense that they had a second child. And she has no capacity to fall in love, to form friendships, or to live in community. She is a constant newcomer, someone who, having no past as far as the world is concerned, effectively has no future. She is a perpetual observer rather than someone who is fully alive.
That premise is provocative in its own right, and “Claire North” (apparently it’s a pseudonym) is a gifted enough writer to sense what she has. Claire’s condition becomes a stepping-off point for reflecting on what it means to be human. Who are we if we cannot leave a lasting mark on the world around us? To what degree are we, or should we, be shaped by group and social pressures?
It takes a while for the central conflict to become fully clear – North is very skilled, here and in the even a little better The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, and she shows her hand slowly – but Hope is both attracted to and horrified by a Scientology-like app call Perfection. The app works by encouraging consumers to make “healthy choices” – like eating well, working out, buying flattering clothes, and being seen with other out-to-be-perfect people – and it rewards its top-tier participants with “programming,” eventually revealed to be surgery that alters their personality.
The result of such engineering is a cadre of bland movie-star types, people whom the world seems to value but who appear to Hope (and to a couple other key characters) as soul-less. They have, in other words, forgotten their true selves in favor of the marketed, packaged identity of corporate America.
And there you have the central conflict of the novel: at one extreme a woman incapable of experiencing community and its pressures and, at the other, a process that amplifies a false sense of community over all other types of identity.
This is, in other words, a philosophical novel disguised as sci-fi/fantasy. Or maybe that’s what sci-fi/fantasy should always aspire to. It’s just rarely this good.
Further complicating the scenario here, Hope is a Black woman of Muslim descent. She is, after Ralph Ellison (who shows us how the Black man is, in some crucial ways, invisible in white America), or Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (who give us the Fantastic Four’s Invisible girl), or even a host of very contemporary political voices who insist that all Muslims are subsumed under the identity of their faith, just the type to be made invisible. As a consequence, North is after something not just philosophical but topical as well.
All those conflicts get subsumed within a story that is still a pretty good story. I’ve said enough already without getting into the other characters who, while not remembering Hope, do come to understand that she exists and develop relationships with her by leaving themselves notes about their interactions. Those characters develop different feelings about the nature of her invisibility and the potential for Perfection to perfect or destroy the world. And they work at cross purposes to safeguard or sabotage the app.
I do think this one could have worked just as well if it were a good shot shorter, but North writes so well that it’s hardly a complaint. I’m happy to be lost in her work and her worlds. She has the capacity, like no one else I can think of at this scale, to change one fundamental premise of human identity and then to measure the implications of that change with unwavering insight. I am very much looking forward to whatever she does next. She writes novels that ought to be written.
- Joe Kraus