The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
This novel has been an example of a book with big sci-fi or fantasy themes making headways in mainstream literary culture, much like The Time Traveller’s Wife or Never Let Me Go. As much as I like books like this, they tend to pull back on the science element and focus on their stranger themes as metaphors or purely as plot devices to explore character. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but I usually ending up wishing that these books would delve a little deeper into their sci-fi premises. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August plummets head first into its fascinating premise and I loved it.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is kind of like Groundhog Day for an entire life. Harry August is the illegitimate child of a member of the aristocracy who leads a fairly ordinary life through most of the 20th century before succumbing to cancer and dying in the late 1980s. Then he wakes up, as a baby, born in the exact same conditions and before long the memory of the life that he has lived before re-appears. As the title may suggest, this book covers Harry’s first fifteen, varied lives. He is not alone, there are others with this strange power or curse (known as the kalachakra or Ouroborans) and they have bound together as the ‘Cronus Club’. There is danger coming however, with a young girl coming to Harry on one of his deathbeds and telling him that the world was ending and to pass the message down.
The story is not told in a linear fashion as we flicker regularly between the apocalypse main storyline and thematically linked chapters detailing key events from Harry’s earlier lives. This means that the main storyline doesn’t lose momentum throughout and the flashbacks making a nice vignette between the heavier main story stuff. Although the world is at stake, the central conflict is a personal one. There’s a sense of scale to this novel that’s a bit intimidating; decades are glossed over in sentences and North doesn’t like to waste time. We get what we need and no more; this is a remarkably disciplined novel, which is certainly a good thing as flabbiness is the sort of thing that could sink a book like this.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is told in an oddly impersonal and detached manner. This really works though as it perfectly captures Harry’s unique viewpoint on the world. Nothing is particularly shocking or surprising to Harry; he’s almost numb to what goes on around him and so moments of horror and joy are dispassionately noted and then moved on from. At times it can be a little off putting, with North often refusing to give us the emotional catharsis we want. What she does do is much cleverer and in the end it’s difficult not to appreciate what she’s done.
This is very much Harry’s book, but she does a great job of giving us a series of other, vivid figures, particularly among the other kalachakra. I was particularly impressed by an antagonistic figure who emerges later on and I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing some more of this world.