You’ve met Hope Arden a thousand times before. You simply don’t remember.
Examining themes of identity, memory, self-awareness and the commodification of humanity, The Sudden Appearance of Hope by British writer Claire North (a pseudonym for Catherine Webb) goes to the very heart of what it means to be a person.
In a modern age there there is a pill for every ailment, and quick fix for every flaw, Hope Arden’s tale is a salutary one.
Somewhere around the age of 16, Hope Arden, a young woman with a loving family, a close knit circle of school friends and the usual accoutrements of personhood, finds she is being forgotten.
Little by little, those nearest and dearest and even those with tenuous links at best, are finding it hard to hold on to any semblance of knowing her or having her. In short, she is being forgotten, phrase by phrase, conversation by conversation, moment by moment until finally she ceases to exist altogether for anyone but herself.
“I fear sometimes that … she isn’t real. That she does not exist. It is irrational, of course; we have evidence, DNA, prints, her face, her MO, we have everything we need to convict her. But everywhere we go, every crime she commits, people cannot remember her. Is she a trick, an illusion?” (P. 165)
Unable to be remembered by anyone once they have parted, Hope finds herself in an unenviable netherworld – or enviable if you are one of those people, and the book features one in particular, who is deeply covetous of that kind of total, enduring anonymity – where she can’t finish school, find a job, get medical help, have a friend, or undertake any of the other activities we all take for granted.
With no other choices available to her, Hope becomes a thief, trading on her phantom-esque ability to be somewhere and yet not; a presence with whom people interact only to be a sliver of a whispered memory a mere minute or so later.
Hers is a shadow world, one defined by loneliness, loss of affirmation by others, and identity that rests solely on her own perception of others; with no one else to confirm or deny whether she is right or wrong, whether she’s is whole or broken, perfect or flawed, she is utterly left to her own devices, a woman with no other validity than that she chooses to apportion.
In contrast, Rafe Pererya-Conroy, wealthy and entitled, is remembered everyday by tens of millions around the world as the man who brought them Perfection, an all-encompassing app that invades every last part of a person’s life, suggesting, cajoling and selling to until that person achieves his company’s idea of “perfection”, which usually involves a superficial adherence to materialism, ambition, power and wealth.
In other words, you become what you have, not what you are, your old identity flushed away in favour of light, airy, nothing conversations, endless quests for money and prestige, social approval and a vacuous tenuous hold on personhood, which is only as good as your more recent algorithmic interaction with the all-pervasive, and some might say, self-destructive app.
The world of Hope Arden, and indeed that of Rafe, sister Filipa who views Perfection with fear and disgust despite creating its base programming, his head of security Gauguin, his nemesis and one time lover Byron (a pseudonym for the woman he almost married) and indeed everyone in the Sudden Appearance of Hope revolves around identity.
With an almost stream of consciousness style of writing at times that captures the thousand and one things that go through our mind in a nanosecond with unerring accuracy, the book is a treatise on the way in which who we are is increasingly defined by the likes of apps, social media, and approval from people we barely even know.
So tenuous are the links in fact, so spiderweb-like the connections, that it is increasingly possible to “know” someone and yet no know them at all, to be a presence in their life and then forgotten mere seconds later.
Such is the social ephemera of the modern digital age where who we think we are is often subsumed and lost to what others think, or by own narcissism, which is fed day and night by an apparatus which exists only to affirm and reaffirm our self-perceptions of life and the world around us.
In that sense, Hope, who is forced to take on Perfection where her previously wholly anonymous world collides headlong into Rafe’s version of what it means to be alive, valued and worthwhile, is the very personification of how gossamer-thin identity can be for people with a faltering sense of self.
“Two commandments,” I mused. Know thyself and know everyone else. Having no one else to know me, having no one to catch me or lift me up, tell me I’m right or wrong, having no one to define the limits of me, I have to define myself … But finding definition without all the … daily things that give you shape – Mum, Dad, friend, sister, lover, work, hobby, job, home, travel – without the limits of place or society, I could define myself as anything.” (P. 382)
Even the protagonist, who has been forced to bolster her self-identity or risk losing it altogether since no one remembers who she is, struggles at times to remember who she is exactly or why she does what she does.
Masterfully-written, The Sudden Appearance of Hope, which refers to the way in which everyone in her life meets her again and again and again for the first time – handy when you want to undertake a course of learning where the first week is free to newcomers; not so good when you want a lover to remember you in the morning – is a blistering and emotionally-immersive treatise on identity and belonging, an exploration of the good and the bad of having the world effectively blind to your existence.
North isn’t afraid to be blisteringly honest, issuing stinging rebukes to the vapidity of peoples’ lives, and the way they substitute their souls with trinkets and baubles, both tangible and not, while at the same time delivering an insightful, empathetic take on what it is like to be on the margins of humanity, barely remembered, if you are remembered at all.
While never harping on with some moralistic lesson that it behooves us all to remember, The Sudden Appearance of Hope is a clever, brilliantly-written eminently-moving examination of humanity, of the way in which identity and its loss can be the making or breaking of us, depending on our perspective and whether we have a strong sense of self to begin with and know who we are, with or without the world’s varying degrees of approval.