The Wednesday Review: John Twelve Hawks’ SPARK

Jacob Underwood is dead. His Shell exists to shelter his Spark, allowing him to feel disgust, curiosity, and boredom. Working as an enforcer for a division of DGB, a huge, multinational corporation, he’s responsible for neutralizing problems within the company. Being dead, he has no compunctions about his tasks. It’s a job, and so long as he does his job, he gets paid, and people leave him alone.

His newest assignment, to locate and neutralize one Emily Buchanan, leads him places he doesn’t necessarily want to go, and question things he doesn’t necessarily want to question.

Spark has to be one of the most creative thrillers I’ve read in god knows how long. Underwood suffers from a real condition – Cotard’s Syndrome – which is very rare. Essentially, he’s delusional and believes he’s dead. Also called Walking Corpse Syndrome, Underwood has created this imaginative and complicated story for why he’s mobile and otherwise functioning as a human being. He sees things as colors, doesn’t like to be touched, believes that the present is the only thing that matters, and values dogs above all else. Despite his lack of emotion, he’s a quick thinker and able to work his way out of most situations with ease, finding solutions to tricky problems without the need for help.

We spend the first handful of chapters following Underwood on a different assignment, so we don’t reach the main point (find Emily Buchanan) until about a quarter of the way through the book. But spending all that time getting to know Underwood and how he operates is necessary. Given his quirks and flat affect, he could be a bland and unlikeable character. Instead, he’s strangely compelling and you can’t help but feel a bit sorry for him.

His inability to feel fear has its advantages, though. Seeing everything from his point of view, watching how he interacts with others and how he puzzles out problems is similar to a high-functioning autistic.

Set sometime in the near future (we’re never told exactly when), the world has become increasingly paranoid about terrorist attacks and taken strident measures to buffer against these. Surveillance equipment, a la Big Brother, is the norm. People are required to have Freedom Cards or otherwise have their abnormal behavior logged as normal. This is a thinking book – it shows us just how frighteningly dependent we’ve become on machines to make our decisions for us.

Even with the slow start, it never feels slow. Everything has a purpose, from Underwood’s methodical planning to murder a finance guy in England to his meeting in India to his choices in the final chapters. There are twists and turns and through it all, Underwood grows. He’s forced to adapt to new surroundings and behaviors, to consider the consequences of his actions and how it affects others, where before, it didn’t matter to him. A job is a job is a job.

When everything comes to a head, the conclusion plays out in a spectacularly bloody fashion. We don’t know what happens to Underwood, and I think we’re not meant to. The answer to the biggest question doesn’t tie everything up in a neat little bow, and everything could be undone in a blink.

Spark paints a twisted, often ruthless picture of what could happen if we sacrifice our freedom for a (false) sense of safety. Big Brother is definitely watching, and Underwood is just starting to realize what that means.

Copy of Spark provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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