I have just finished listening to the astonishing debut of author Emma Geen. I wish I could remember who first told me about the novel, The Many SelveI have just finished listening to the astonishing debut of author Emma Geen. I wish I could remember who first told me about the novel, The Many Selves of Katherine North, because I would like to send that person a thank you note.
The reviews on this book use words like exhilarating, horrifying, compelling, and riveting to describe the story of a girl named Kit who is a phenomenaut – someone whose consciousness is projected into the bodies of lab-grown animals for research purposes. Readers quoted on her website refer to the book as a "literary thriller," "spine-chilling science fiction," and a "compulsively readable sci-fi thriller," but I like Havi Carel's description best, "Geen weaves together philosophy and science fiction to create a magical, intelligent and intense novel."
I was initially drawn to this book because I was intrigued by the idea of humans being able to project themselves into the lives of other animals, and I was not disappointed. While Geen's disclaimer at the end of the book makes it clear that she is not a zoologist, she is nonetheless able to transfix her readers with the way she describes life as other creatures: fox, spider, whale, eagle, tiger. Her immersion into these other lives goes beyond the physical perceptions and sensations. When Kit slips into another body, she also slips into another set of emotions and impulses. It was a fascinating and thought-provoking shift in perspective.
While I was definitely carried along by the story (even becoming so caught up in the last few chapters that I abandoned my Friday afternoon deadlines and surrendered to a half hour of dedicated listening in the middle of the day), as a writer, I was also impressed by Geen's prowess with both structure and language. Though I already own the audio version of this book (which was, by the way, beautifully narrated by Katy Sobey), I may end up purchasing a hard copy of the book. I want to be able to leaf through the pages so I can better understand the way Geen built the story, and there are probably (no lie) hundreds of passages that I'd end up underlining for future reference.
Kit's narrative bounces back and forth between two timelines – present and past – that eventually converge. To add to the complexity, much of the story takes place while Kit is projecting as other animals. Despite all this bouncing around in time and place and body, the story hangs together in a way that's easy to follow. Geen does an excellent job of creating a pattern of rhythm and context that makes it easy for the reader (even one who is listening as I was) to stay in-step with the story.
And then there is Geen's use of language. Had I been reading this as a print book, I would have had to keep a pencil with me at all times so I could make notes in the margins on every other page. In Geen's hands, something as simple as describing looking out onto the day turns into poetry, "I wake to the sky flashing lilac. Thunder follows soon after, a sound like the foundations of Heaven grinding loose. The silvered gleam of rain and vegetation writhes against the dark."
Coming back to theme, I once again have to agree with Havi Carel's assessment that this book is as much about philosophy as it is about science fiction. Or, perhaps, the two are so closely related as to be much the same thing. At any rate, I found this book to be a powerful catalyst for musings on what it means to be human, how we define self, the relationship between humans and animals, the relationships between humans, and how we perceive our lives. As deep as Geen dives into these waters, taking us along for the ride, it's clear to see that there are depths still waiting to be explored. The Many Selves of Katherine North is an invitation to sink a little further into the darkness in search of the light.
I fell in love with Marty on page one. She is immediately both very real and very endearing. She is delightfully imperfect, but her imperfection neverI fell in love with Marty on page one. She is immediately both very real and very endearing. She is delightfully imperfect, but her imperfection never feels contrived. All the pieces fit. I know people like Marty. You know people like Marty. Though she is decades younger than I am, and much of who she is has to do with the dysfunctional relationship she has with her mother (my mom and I are best friends), I found her completely relatable.
Her story unfolds as a series of diary entries, which she pens in an attempt to cope with everything that's happening in her life. (I won't give any spoilers, but there's a LOT happening.) As someone who has journaled since the age of seven, I found Lai's "dear diary" voice is spot on. Marty's on-page ramblings and rantings are honest, transparent, sometimes slightly self-indulgent, often incredulous, and - at all the right points in the story - illuminating. She doesn't pull any punches. I was also impressed with the way Lai wove the narrative (including dialog) into an epistolary style novel without ever jarring me out of the story.
Not a Self-Help Book is a funny, irreverent, heartfelt story of one woman's journey to discover what she really wants, who she is, and how she can best navigate the treacherous waters of her relationship with her mother. It's a story about holding onto dreams, making mistakes, and what happens when we discover that things are not exactly as they seem....more