84K by Claire North

May 24, 2018

What if your life were defined by a number?

What if any crime could be committed without punishment, so long as you could afford to pay the fee assigned to that crime?

Theo works in the Criminal Audit Office. He assesses each crime that crosses his desk and makes sure the correct debt to society is paid in full.

But when Theo’s ex-lover Dani is killed, it’s different. This is one death he can’t let become merely an entry on a balance sheet.

Because when the richest in the world are getting away with murder, sometimes the numbers just don’t add up.

The End of the Day was hands down my favourite novel of 2017, you can check me raving positively about it here. When I received a copy of 84K in the mail I was beyond excited. Turns out I had every cause to be.   

Claire North’s latest manages the trickiest of tasks. Not only does have something important to say, it is also a genuinely affecting tale.  The author is extremely skilled when it comes to crafting her characters. Like most people, Theo Miller is a hodge-podge of contradictions. He has spent years attempting to be seen as nothing more than average, but is actually very skilled at his job. He dreams of more than he has but is still happy to fly under the radar and not rock any boats. Theo’s life has a tedious monotony that allows him no small comfort. A creature of habit, a slave to the rules, he just wants to get by. Theo is a broken man who has spent so long living a lie he doesn’t realise he is broken.

There is much of Winston Smith or Sam Lowry about Theo. He is a tiny cog in a vast machine known as The Company. England has changed, and everything that matters is now owned by one huge monopoly. The justice system, social and health services and even the government all bow to The Company’s will. Theo’s job is relatively straightforward, he is a glorified accountant. He determines the monetary cost that is assigned to any crime. Theo’s life is upended when an old friend, Dani, is brutally murdered. Suddenly names on a list and numbers on a spreadsheet are no longer enough. Theo becomes convinced there is some bigger conspiracy afoot and he is determined to discover the who, what and why of it all. Driven by events from his past that still haunt him, he is compelled to take action.  

A word of advice, you need to pay close attention to what is going on in 84K. Theo’s story has some non-linear episodes. Short vignettes detail growing up in a run-down coastal town, his first meeting with Dani and his brief time at University. These key events offer powerful insight into what has made Theo Miller, Theo Miller.

Along the way Theo meets other characters each on their own journey. The one who really struck a chord was Neila. Since the rise of The Company she has distanced herself from what is left of society. She lives on a canal boat, always moving, never settling in one spot for too long. Her story though not quite as detailed as Theo’s is just as captivating.  

There is an emotive core to this author’s writing that is gets me every time. I found myself caring about these characters. Like most adults, myself included, Theo in really just winging it. He doesn’t have any earth shattering answers. Hell, he might not even know the questions. All he does know is that something is fundamentally wrong, and he reached the end of his tether. He needs to finally stand up for his beliefs and make a change.

84K achieves the same feat that The End of the Day does, it gets you thinking. Theo’s life in London is almost, but not quite, the same as our own. It’s that ‘not quite’ where narrative excels. North picks apart a whole host of topical issues. Everything from the nature of humanity, the unchecked rise of capitalism, gender identity, politics and class struggle are highlighted in one form or another. Days after finishing this story, I am still thinking about it. There is something about this novel that feels like it could be eerily prophetic. Every day I read the news and it seems we are inching one day closer to North’s vision of our country. In 84K the end of the world isn’t happening with a bang, the collapse of society is occurring by tiny almost imperceptible increments. That is what makes for the genuinely horrific. Changes are made on such a small scale that the general population accepts each one of them blindly. When the realisation finally dawns that there is something wrong, any chance of reversing things is all but lost. The lunatics are running the asylum and at may be that only Theo Miller can stop them.

Everybody needs to read 84K. Consistently thoughtful fiction like this needs to be championed. I’ll admit it, I’m a little in awe of the author. Her work is sublime. Fiction that makes me think is always a joy. I want to be challenged, I want to be forced to engage the old grey matter. To do this and create an engrossing story in the same breath is masterful. Claire North deserves your undivided attention. Buy the book, read it. Your brain will thank you.

My musical recommendation to accompany 84K is the soundtrack to How I Live Now by Jon Hopkins. They fit together beautifully.

84K is published by Orbit and is available now. If there was a rating higher than highly recommended this book would receive it.

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