In The Many Selves of Katherine North, humanity has harnessed the power of the consciousness of the mind and mechanized the ability to place that consciousness in different bodies at will. Katherine is a teenager who works for a large research company. She’s the longest lasting “phenomenaut” (person who’s consciousness is put into the body of an animal) because she seems to be special. The process of consciousness transfer seems to stop working when the brain ages and loses its plasticity. Katherine’s brain seems to be fine. But then, one day, Katherine sees something strange when she’s out of her body…
This is the first fantasy/science fiction novel that I’ve picked up that discusses the morality and paradigm shifting world view of shamanistic practices. That’s essentially what the technology of the story allows: to view the world through the eyes of an animal, like a shaman through the eyes of his spirit animal. The Many Selves of Katherine North asks some pretty powerful questions behind the narrative like: What is consciousness? How does our physical body change how we perceive the world? What is reality anyway? I think that this story has the potential to open up a dialogue about these questions between readers who may not have considered them before. In that way, this is a very powerful book.
I did not like how the story flips back and forth between the present and the past. I know that it builds the mystery and adds depth, but, because of the nature of Katherine’s many consciousness experiences, mixing up the timeline too made things rather confusing. It’s a complicated book. At times, maybe too complicated.
The richness and variety of Katherine’s experiences necessarily drives a wedge between her reality and the rest of humanity’s reality. The reader really sees difference in this moment, when Katherine is preparing to go into work: “Later, I lie in bed quivering… because it’s only hours until I’m out of here. Here- not just a room but skin. How can other people call this their totality? There is so much more.” pg 19
Katherine captures the impossibility of explaining out-of-body experiences very succinctly here: “Because how do you cram the lived experience on to a page? The words available to me were never enough. Something would always slip the sentences. Human language developed around human bodies, it never quite fits other ways of being. pg 66
I loved all of the chapters when Katherine was in the body of an animal. In this one, she was a snake: “History is written into the floor in a trill of smell. Leather tinged with shoe polish, encapsulated flesh- a trail of footsteps haunting the floor they once trod. Lemon and cotton sweep- a mop pushed back and forth. Old scents have imprinted upon the world like spoor into soft mud, the past blundering prey. I wonder if this is one reason many animals have a poor memory compared to humans. What’s the use in remembering when the world does it for you? pg 146 Fascinating.
Emma Geen included a disclaimer at the back of her book and it contained some of my favorite lines: “…what if there are other valid ways of knowing? What is the world is not one, but multitude, with as many ways of being as there are beings? What if literature were the opportunity to glimpse such refractions, thrown by the world as though from a diamond? For to walk a mile in someone’s shoes is not just to take on an element of their embodied experience but to take part in their journey. Such skin-walking is the magic of fiction, which invites the reader not only to slip into the lived experience of other people but also to share, for a while, the cares and joys of their narrative journeying. My work here is therefore perhaps closer to that of a seamstress than a scientist; this novel, a fantastical wardrobe of skins.” pgs 349-350 Loved that.
If you enjoyed The Many Selves of Katherine North, you may want to pick upThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern or Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock for more glimpses of worlds hidden within worlds.
Big thanks to Goodreads First Reads program, NetGalley, and Bloomsbury USA for providing me with an advance reading copy of this novel. Thanks for reading!