“Better than what?”
“Better than whatever life I happen to be living in right now.”
Kepler performs an unusual job, for unusual clients—trading in bodies, lives, and possessions. Clients come, looking for a new life, and Kepler finds them one.
Kepler was alive once. Centuries ago Kepler lived, breathed, carried dreams and hopes, survived disappointments and devastation. A chance encounter, a split second that seems to last a lifetime, leaves Kepler unmoored, a familiar consciousness in an unfamiliar body—a ghost. Something unknown, an ancient mental mechanism or an undiscovered gene mutation, allows ghosts like Kepler to live past death—but only by possessing another human being.
Lost moments, arriving home late with no memory of driving there, a rest on a park bench that becomes an unexpected nap. Are these moments lost or are they stolen? Kepler is an estate agent, a good estate agent, sussing out lives for ghosts to inhabit, knowing how to pick that life up and “move it about like so much money on a Monopoly board.”
Kepler moves from body to body, with little discrimination towards sex, over centuries: “Everyone has a hobby, and everyone was mine.” Until Josephine Cebula, Kepler’s current host, is brutally murdered on the streets of Turkey.
Thus begins a game of the hunt and the hunted with Kepler possessing Nathan Coyle, Cebula’s killer, even while longing to kill him. Two beings inhabiting one body race through a maze that reaches back through time.
North’s unique plot and flesh-less protagonist allows her to play with cultural understandings of sex, gender, and the concept of self. Kepler’s original sex is never revealed: “I lost my name a long, long time ago,” Kepler says. Readers pass through past lives without seeing the first life—Rome in 1838, Cairo in the 1790s, Romy Ebner in 1982. Kepler’s voice has no sex, the host body providing the only genitalia.
How do we shape and understand identity without sex? Strangers habitually ask pregnant women whether they are expecting a boy or girl. Nouns in the English language may have no gender, but sex and gender are still buried in our language. English has no gender-neutral, or sexless, pronouns: Kepler exists in a place the English language cannot reach or mimic.
“Are the two mutually incompatible,” a client asks Kepler, “femininity and toughness?” Are the two mutually incompatible, male and female? Can one be both—alive and dead, male and female, human and something beyond human?
Kepler has nothing. Every experience, every sensation, every possession is borrowed—stolen—from another living being. Even those who strive to live unbounded by material goods still own themselves. Our bodies are our own, only shared with time and age. We know if we chew our nails when we are nervous, the story behind each scar, the way humidity changes our hair. Our bodies, our own smell, impacts how we view ourselves, and therefore how we interact with reality. Kepler has none of this, only the memory of owning a physical self—now just one of many.
Over the years Kepler inhabits an unknowable number of people, some without their knowledge, others willingly trade their bodies: “They trusted me with their naked skin,” Kepler says, “If that isn’t an act of love I don’t know what is.” Kepler keenly feels the loss of physical being, despite these acts of love. Only as Josephine Cebula does Kepler feel human: “I was a person when I was her…not some shadow playing a part, but her, whole and true, a truth that was more whole than anything she had been.”
Kepler wants what all of us want, to feel whole.
This is a perfect bookclub book. My co-worker and I have an unofficial Claire North book-club going at work: we can’t stop talking about Kepler and how this books makes us feel. We’ve both decided Kepler’s voice feels female, though we can’t pinpoint why. We should be disgusted by Kepler, who is basically a parasite, and yet we feel incredible sympathy for the character. This is a book that won’t leave us alone, even weeks after we both finished. “Touch” haunts us.