Everything About You by Heather Child

May 3, 2018

Freya has a new virtual assistant. It knows what she likes, knows what she wants and knows whose voice she most needs to hear: her missing sister’s.

It adopts her sister’s personality, recreating her through a life lived online. But this virtual version of her knows things it shouldn’t be possible to know.

It’s almost as if the missing girl is still out there somewhere, feeding fresh updates into the cloud. But that’s impossible. Isn’t it?

I’m sure many of you have a digital assistant in your home. It doesn’t matter if you use Siri or Cortana, Google or Alexa* it’s all still a bit of a novelty isn’t it? Flash forward five or ten years from now, and it will be commonplace. We’ll all have our own assistants that are with us twenty-four seven. A virtual presence that knows you better than you know yourself and caters for you every whim. Sounds blissful doesn’t it? Heather Child’s debut novel, Everything About You, uses this as a jumping off point.  The big question it ponders – what if this most intimate of relationships wasn’t all it appeared to be.  Many of us live big chunk of our lives online. Who knows how our personal data is being used and by whom? Just imagine, is there is anything more unsettling than a piece of technology hanging on your every word?

Where I think this novel excels is the characterisation of the main character. There is an inherent sadness in Freya. Ever since her foster sister, Ruby, disappeared, Freya’s life has been on hold. She floats through her days without any real sense of direction. I found it incredibly easy to empathise with her. Freya attempts to live a normal existence. She tries to hold down a crappy job (because that’s what you do).  She doesn’t really have anyone she could call a friend. She is all but cut off from the rest of the world. The only people in her life are her mum, a self-absorbed colleague, a loathsome boss and a virtual-porn addicted ex-boyfriend, Julian, (who Freya still shares a house with). Freya’s life has stalled, her sister’s loss continues to eat away at her. Even though it has been years since Ruby went missing, the experience is still so raw Freya dwells upon it constantly. The only bright spot is her digital assistant. Using Freya’s online footprint as a guide, the device has assumed an identity based on Ruby. The strange thing? Virtual Ruby feels too real, too close to her human counterpart. Freya becomes obsessed with uncovering the truth.

There is also an introspective quality to the writing I really enjoyed. Freya is constantly searching for answers. Losing her sister has left such a huge gap in her life that Freya can barely function. The only thing pushing her forwards is the possibility, however small, that Ruby could still be alive. Freya’s journey allows Child the opportunity to pick apart the anatomy of grief and what that can mean to a person. Bonding with her sister’s virtual ghost changes Freya. Through the digitised memories that the artificial Ruby is made of, Freya begins to better understand herself and the real person she thought she knew.

The author peppers the plot with tiny topical flourishes that perfectly flesh out the main story. An offhand comment about Brexit and the inevitable Bre-entry here, a dialogue about the continuing automation of jobs there. We may live surrounded by technology, in a digital information-age, but we are still finding our feet when it comes to living a digital existence. Everything About You taps directly into all the concerns that come with this way of living. What with the recent revelations regarding companies like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, Everything About You is not only entertaining but also eerily prescient.

Everything About You manages to be thought provoking, cutting edge and heart-breakingly emotive all in a single breath. Heather Child’s command of the narrative remains compelling throughout and I was hooked from beginning to end. I had to keep reminding myself this is her debut novel, it is so confident and self-assured. This is exactly the sort of immersive experience that is crying out for adaptation to the screen. It could easily feature as an episode in the next season of Black Mirror. I was so caught up in the story I rattled through the entire novel in a couple of sittings. All things considered Everything About You is going to go down as one of my highlights of 2018.

My soundtrack recommendation to accompany Everything About You is the technologically apt Ex Machina by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. It’s modern, ambient electronica that captures the tone of the novel beautifully. As far as I am concerned it is a match made in heaven, they fit together perfectly.

Everything About You is published by Orbit and is available now. Highly recommended.

*My Alexa is an odd device. It was recently renamed “Computer”, any excuse to pretend to be Jean-Luc Picard**. It has started behaving extremely strangely. I find myself repeating requests (mostly shouting) at it all the time. Hell, I even got rick-rolled last week after Alexa point blank refused to shut down while Never Gonna Give You Up was playing.

**Seriously, getting to say “Computer, Earl Grey, Hot”. Just to hear the response is a constant joy.

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