The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August: Unexpected and enjoyable

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North fantasy book reviewsThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

I’m not sure what’s been in the air lately, but it seems I’ve been reading a lot of books this past year dealing with reincarnation/being reborn. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is yet another of those, and while it isn’t my favorite of the ones I’ve read with similar ideas (that would be either Life After Life by Kate Atkinson or The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell), I thoroughly enjoyed Claire North’s novel, though the first half was better than its second half.

In the world of Harry August, a small group of people (called Kalachakra or ouroborans, after the worm that eats its own tail) are born, live their lives, die, and then are reborn in the exact same fashion, in the exact same time and place, as their first birth, but with all their memories intact. To use an analogy from ancient technology, it’s like when the phonograph needle is placed at the start of the song on the album, runs through the song’s entire groove, and then automatically returns to the start. Again and again and again (for you kids, it’s like “repeat song” on your iPod). As you might imagine, that might be a bit disorienting for those young children with the adult minds, and the first life or two or three often go somewhat awry — suicides, institutionalizing, and the like. Our protagonist, Harry August, has his share of both (turns out suicide is also a convenient escape plan, though you have to go through your whole childhood again). As Harry tells us somewhat wryly:

Naturally, my reaction to being born again precisely where I had begun — in the women’s restroom of Berwick-upon-Tweed station, on New Year’s Day 1919, with all the memories of my life that had gone before, induced its own rather clichéd madness in me.

Eventually though, a kalachakra will figure out what they are (if not why), often with the help of others who look for them and help them adapt, as well as offer them resources. This is the semi-legendary Cronus Club:

One of those wry footnotes academics put at the bottom of a text to liven up a particularly dull passage, a kind of ‘incidentally, some say this and isn’t that quaint fairy tale… [This one] says there are people living among us who do not die… they live again, the same life, a thousand times. And these people… get together sometimes.

The rules of the Club, as Harry eventually is eventually advised, are simple in nature and few in number:

Don’t bugger about with temporal events… Don’t harm another Kalachakra… if you get a chance to make a massive, obscene amount of money, please do put some aside for our childhood benevolent fund, [and] don’t tell anyone where or when you’re from.

Simple and few yes, but it’s the breaking of those rules, or at least the attempt to do so, that drives the novel’s plot. And that also appear to cause the warning Harry receives at the very start of the novel from the future, via a little girl:

The world is ending as it always must. But the end of the world is getting faster.

Structurally, North jumps around amidst Harry’s many lives, though we always return to his present one. This non-linear structure was one of my favorite aspects of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. I liked how it keeps the reader on his/her toes, how it adds suspense by cutting away at pivotal moments, or giving us flash forwards to future events, how it plays into the whole issue at the core of the novel. Is it confusing? Not really, certainly not in any way large enough to hinder my enjoyment. It’s all very cleverly plotted and arranged and plays out surprisingly fluidly for all its life-jumping. It was also just simply fun to see how Harry chooses to change his life, such as how he avoids combat in World War I or what he chooses to study.

As mentioned in my intro, I did find the first half of the book more compelling, even obsessively compelling I might say, than the latter half, which slows down a bit and becomes somewhat more traditional in some ways.

On the other hand, the second half delves a bit more into the “big questions” — as we see people (not just Harry) going around again and again, some on their third lives, some into their hundreds, we start to see various attitudes toward the meaning of it all — what does one do with these repeated chances? Does one revel in it? Grow bored with it? Jaded? All these reactions and more? What does this repetition mean for free will? For ethics? For deciding on if one acts or remains passive? What does it say about humanity that so much of our history is repeated, just as these characters repeat their individual lives?

Character-wise, Harry is a solid creation, if a bit bland (another character describes him as “blank”). But despite this, or maybe because of it, if he himself doesn’t really come alive, he does so in his relationships — with fellow Kalachakra (one in particular), with his “linear” parents — both real and adoptive — with one of his linear wives, and in particular with his adversary. North does a superb job with relationships here, and I for one was utterly thrilled that she didn’t feel the need to toss in an ongoing or potential romance.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is an excellent take on the reborn-lives concept. It grabs you at the very start (that whole accelerating-end-of-the-world thing), offers stimulating reading thanks to its structure and large themes, presents us with realistic and moving relationships, is tightly plotted and constructed, and tosses in some quantum mechanical theory and extrapolation for good measure. It was good enough I’d read it in my second life again. And maybe even my third. Or fifteenth.

Editor’s note: Claire North is a pseudonym of author Catherine Webb who also writes as Kate Griffin.

~Bill Capossere


The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North fantasy book reviewsHarry August lives his life, over and over and over. His memory gradually returns to him when he’s a toddler in each life. The first time his prior memories reawaken, in his second life, he thinks he’s insane and ends up committing suicide when he’s only about seven, only to find himself starting all over again in a third life. Since clearly the suicide thing doesn’t solve his problem, he gets down to the business of trying to figure out how to best live his life lives.

One of the beauties of Harry’s repeated lives is that it lets us explore how many different directions this type of time travel could go, and all the wrinkles that would develop: How much can you gamble on sure things and get away with it? Do you look for the same person to love each time? Do you try to assassinate Hitler or save JFK? Would it work? Should you even try?

In his fourth life Harry tries sharing his secret with others and ends up tangling with people who want to use his knowledge of future events for their own purposes. The one good thing that comes out of this process is that he discovers that there are others like him. They call themselves the kalachakra, which is a Buddhist wheel of time concept, or ouroborans, after the snake eating its own tail.

The Kalachakra have formed clubs and try to help each other out, especially during their difficult early childhood years. Club members can pass questions back and forth through time: a young person will give a message to another member when he’s old, so that when he is born again he can in turn pass the message to another member who is at the end of her life — and vice versa. And so future connects to past, older to younger. Like any society, they have their rules — which include not doing anything that will drastically change the future. But someone, somewhere, is breaking the rules, and the message is passed down the line from the future: “The world is ending, sooner and sooner. And we don’t know why.”

The first half of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is more of an exploration of the ramifications of this type of life, but it takes an interesting turn in the second half, into kind of a multi-life espionage thriller, as Harry tries to find out the reasons for this looming global catastrophe. But his involvement leads to more trouble than he could have imagined, and there’s an extremely tense and exciting cat-and-mouse hunt in the later chapters that kept me up far too late.

It’s interesting that the premise here is so similar to Kate Atkinson‘s Life After Life — it even takes place roughly during the same time period in the early to late 1900’s — except that in this book we have the Groundhog Day aspect of no loss of memory with rebirth. This book isn’t as “literary” as Life After Life and I’m sure that many readers won’t like it nearly as well as that one. But it did have a fair amount of unexpected depth that was welcome, and — despite a number of plot weaknesses — I just had so much more fun reading this book than the much bleaker (and way more repetitive) Life After Life.

The plot weaknesses are somewhat spoilerish, so read at your own risk: [highlight to view]:You have to be able to accept the premise that too-early technological development always leads to disaster. One of the characters is trying to develop a machine that will, in some nebulous way, give all the answers to Life, the Universe, and Everything; this machine is compared to finding or becoming like God. It was a bit of a stretch for me. Also, you can permanently erase an ouroboran’s memory by some kind of electroshock therapy; which is fine, except that the erasing process doesn’t work for characters like Harry who have photographic memories. And finally, a major plot point turns on the idea that if you kill a ouroboran while he or she is in utero, before birth, that person will never be reborn again. These last two plot elements definitely struck me as more convenient than plausible.

~Tadiana Jones


The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North fantasy book reviewsTime travel is one of the most tricky things to do right. Innumerable attempts by innumerable authors means that there aren’t many stories left that readers haven’t already seen before. Claire North’s contribution, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, is innovative both in scope and concept, and promises a fresh take on this recycled trope.

Harry August is at the end of his eleventh life when a little girl comes to his bedside and tells him the world is ending. Harry’s world will inevitably end very soon, as it has ten times before. But each time he dies, he wakes up where he began, as an orphaned child brought up by the gardener Patrick August, with the knowledge of all the lives he’s already led. Harry is an ouroboran, one who lives their life over and over again.

In his second or third life, Harry finds the Cronus Club, a group of other ouroborans who keep contact up and down the chain of time, the young from the future passing down messages to the old of the past, and vice versa, so that chains of knowledge and contact spans hundreds and thousands of years. But the future is in trouble, as the girl at Harry’s bedside has warned him. The world is changing, ending faster and faster, the future unstable. What’s more, the Cronus Club is being gradually wiped out, for if you kill an ouroboran in the womb, it will never be reborn again.

As well as trying to understand what is going wrong with the future, Harry also tries to get a grasp on his own existence, dedicating many of his lives to medicine, philosophy, religion and science in a bid to try and understand why he is continually reborn, whether any branch of human knowledge could offer an answer. The first half of the novel revolves around this search, and is meandering and thoughtful in its exploration of human nature. Harry meets many scholars, students and professionals in these early lives, whose significance in his later lives he couldn’t begin to imagine.

The First Fifteen lives of Harry August has been described as a literary thriller, but it must be said, the first half of the novel reads much more like a sprawling family epic. However, come the last third of the book, something twists the pacing on its head. Harry identifies the threat to the future worlds, and suddenly the race is on to try and find a solution. It is impossible not to blaze your way through the end of the book, and for that reason it feels quite jarring in relation to the story’s beginning. There is something very thoughtful and poetic about Harry’s initial musings on the meaning of his life, and whilst it seems very separate from the thrilling finale, it does function as a sort of slow build-up to an unexpected climax.

Claire North has succeeded in creating an unexpected and enjoyable addition to the time travel genre. James Dashner has said it’s one of the top ten books he’s ever read, which as any bibliophile will understand, is high praise indeed. The story spans so many times and places, it almost functions as mental tourism, and North paints each setting in such convincing detail that one has to wonder how much of her life she’s spent travelling, or whether she is in fact just a very convincing liar. Surprisingly dark in its exploration of human nature, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is one of the freshest time travel stories you’ll read in a while, and I’d defy anyone to try and stop reading once they reach that final third.

~Rachael McKenzie


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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