Before you read this book, hop onto Emma Geen’s website and have a quick read about her. When someone’s PhD ‘aims to draw together the findings of science, philosophy and literature to examine the relationships between narrative, embodiment and empathy,’ it’s difficult not to feel as though their debut novel is going to be an epic ride.
And The Many Selves of Katherine North doesn’t disappoint.
Geen’s novel asks many big questions. What does it mean to be human? Where does ‘animal’ end and ‘human’ begin? What is the human conscious and what sets it apart from other living beings? Who has a right to life? Who decides?
Poignant and relatable; Katherine ― affectionately known as Kit ― begins her employment at ShenCorp when she is just 12 years old, a time when many girls begin the long, turbulent journey of learning and exploring how their bodies and femininity are situated in a wider, global context. During Kit’s time with the corporation, her consciousness inhabits a multitude of ResExtendas: functioning biological bodies without a consciousness that are produced by ShenCorp. It is not dissimilar to an adolescent’s tendency to try on different personalities that are promoted by top name brands. It is a journey of identity and therefore fitting that the crux of the novel’s action occurs at 19, a time when many young women begin to understand and assert their womanhood, not uncommonly after encountering life changing experiences or challenges that can ― and do ― significantly affect their life path.
The ResExtendas also raise a potent question: who owns a body? Considering current feminist movements, I found it particularly interesting that the novel’s protagonist is female. In her many bodies, including her ‘Original’, Kit undergoes recurring struggles to assert physical and psychological ownership of the bodies she inhabits. Furthermore, the ResExtenda bodies are ShenCorp ‘property’ and she, a ShenCorp employee. Could the real owner please stand up? At this specific moment in time, with the media backlash against Donald Trump’s misogynistic remarks and the (re)resurgence of feminism, this theme around body, movement, and agency felt particularly relevant.
Whether or not these interpretations were intended by the author is up for debate. That is the beauty of being a reader: you choose how you read into a beautiful work of literature, such as this.
Geen has chosen a nonlinear narrative to drive the story and this was the only aspect of the novel I found to be mildly irksome. There are several supporting and minor characters introduced at different points throughout the story and jumping back and forth in time made it difficult to keep track of whether a character was new or recurring. However, her use of the nonlinear narrative is extremely effective for reader motivation; at each chapter she develops the plot just enough for you to want to find out more. Geen’s writing itself is unbearably transcendent in a sense that is both uplifting and heartbreaking. Yet, it is also grounded in her ardent attention to the senses and the sharp acuity with which she describes sensations to kinaesthetic effect.
Be prepared, The Many Selves of Katherine North is by no means an artificial reading experience. It will leave you with bodily and existential impressions that will have you reflecting on your connection with the lives and world around you.