Is Our Writers Learning? The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North (#SFWApro)

25746699THE SUDDEN APPEARANCE OF HOPE is a literary fantasy good enough I wish I actually liked it (cover image by Plainpicture/Mohamed Itani, all rights with current holder).

The Story: Hope Arden is a black British woman with an unwanted power: ever since it kicked in her teens, everyone who meets her forgets her immediately. For instance, she comes home one day and finds her mother has disposed of all her things because Mom can’t remember why that unused room upstairs is full of teenage girl crap. Hope’s younger sister remembers her, but of course Mom isn’t going to let some stranger hang out with her little girl.

As an adult, Hope supports herself as a professional thief: She can yank a necklace off you and ten seconds later you’re yelling at her to get out of the way as you search for the thief.

In the early sections, Hope strikes up a friendship with Reina, an Arab woman using Perfection, an app that gives you points for how you’re progressing toward perfection — losing weight, eating right, working out, dressing right. When Reina commits suicide, Hope blames the effect of Perfection and sets out to take down the people behind it (she’s spot on as the app pushes people toward fashionable, trendy and pretty rather than any deeper aspirations). However there are adversaries hunting her for her past crimes, even if she can’t remember, so she’s got a lot to do to stay ahead of the game.

WHAT I LEARNED

Thinking through your premise is always good. Not that I didn’t know this, but it’s instructive how well North handles Hope’s power/curse. There’s the emotional effect on Hope who can have a passionate one-night stand only to have her lover wonder who she is when he comes back from the bathroom. When she’s injured, she gets five minutes of treatment in the E/R, then they forget about her so she goes to another hospital, and then another … Hope’s powers don’t work on machines, so she takes security cameras into account in planning her jobs. She’s also able to communicate with various players over the Internet, although she finds that a poor substitute for in-person connections. Given I often see literary fantasy written as if the idea itself is all that’s necessary, I’m pleased North takes time to work it all out.

Style is a two-edged sword. I’ve liked a lot of writers associated with a distinctive prose style — H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Raymond Chandler, to name three. But a lot of people hate style — I’ve read a couple of writer interviews where the author declares that if you notice “style,” that’s a sign the story wasn’t compelling or argue that completely plain, style-free language is by definition superior. Even among people who do like style, that doesn’t mean they’ll like all style. Some people hate Lovecraft’s style, for instance. And North’s style didn’t work on me. It’s a first-person book and Hope’s thought include lots of fragmentary sentences, which is not a bad thing per se, but didn’t work here. And there are lots of lists and bullet-point lists, often assembling random facts, and that didn’t work at all, because Hope doesn’t come across as the sort of autodidact who’d know or regurgitate this stuff. In fairness, I think this is more my personal taste than bad writing.

A hero is only as good as the adversary. Perfection, unfortunately, isn’t much of an adversary. Like the film App, the tech is just new gloss on the kind of creepy cult I’ve seen umpteen times. Fifty years ago it would have been creepy street preachers handing out fliers (“You too can attain Perfection, brothers!”) and inviting Hope and her friend to cult meetings. Old-fashioned isn’t a dealbreaker of course, but nothing elseabout Perfection really interested me. Perfect is bad, but it’s not a ticking-bomb threat; North’s literary style doesn’t make it any more exciting; and I felt Perfection was more to make a point about social values (it’s a very Western Union story) than offer an intriguing opponent. And the message isn’t that new in itself.

Reading this book was instructive, but not as entertaining as I’d anticipated.

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