This strange, remarkable book is written by a ‘debut’ author (or, at least, it’s the first book to be written under the name ‘Claire North’), but the mind behind The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a writing veteran. She has written under the name Kate Griffin, but I first encountered her as the extraordinary children’s author Catherine Webb. Harry August is far from being a children’s novel, though; it is a science-fictiony, literary fictiony, philosophical ramble through the history of the twentieth century, told through the lens of one man’s unusual, and well-lived, life.
Harry August is an ouroboran, or a kalachakra, a person who is reborn every time they die. Not reborn as someone else, however – as themselves. Every time Harry dies, he is reborn in 1919, just as he was the first time, and he lives as the same person, born to the same parents, in the same place, with the same family. The only difference is: he remembers being here before, and he knows he is not ‘normal’. His first life proceeds in the standard fashion, but in his second life he kills himself before he is ten, convinced he is insane – but this is a common problem with kalachakrans. As soon as he is born again, his memories of his first two lives intact, Harry begins to realise what is happening – and so begins his tale. Harry’s memory, it turns out, is unusual; he’s also a ‘mnemonic’, or a person with perfect recall of all their lives. Not all ouroborans are like this: most of them start to forget things after a few lives have passed, but not Harry. This, of course, makes him both powerful and vulnerable as the book goes on.
The most interesting thing about Harry’s lives is that even though they all begin the same way, and they all have similar aspects (he usually dies of the same disease, if he lives long enough; he is not really a fan of marriage, taking only one wife he truly loves in all his lives, though he does marry once more for convenience and another time out of respectful affection; he makes a lot of money through gambling, as he knows who will win every major race in every major sporting event), everything else about them is different. He meets different people, goes to different places, takes up different professions. This is a time travel novel, in many respects, and it deals with the complexities and paradoxes of the genre (the dangers of messing with the future, primarily), but somehow it is different, too. We’re not explicitly told what happens to the ‘worlds’ or timelines Harry lives in every time he ‘dies’; when he is reborn, does his previous life snuff out of existence, like someone has pressed Reset, for everyone but Harry himself? Does it continue in an alternate universe? We never really know, and truthfully it’s not really that important. I loved the concept behind the book, that of living one’s life over and over (it also turns up in a classic SF novel from the 1980s, Replay by Ken Grimwood), but it’s the setting, and the dialogue, and the espionage, and the thoroughness with which every possible imaginable consequence of this sort of existence is explored, which sets this book apart. Also, the research, and the lightness of touch which means we move effortlessly from 1930s England to 1950s China to a research base in the wastes of Siberia, and it all seems real enough to leap off the page.
It’s hard to give an idea of the story, because – being honest – I’m not entirely clear on all Harry’s ‘timelines.’ I can only imagine the size of the crib-sheets the author must have had to prepare in order to keep all the versions of Harry straight as she wrote this book. I can’t remember in which life he first meets his friend and nemesis, Victor. I can’t remember which life he’s in when he meets Virginia, the woman who is part of the Cronus Club, which is an organisation of fellow ouroborans designed to take care of and nurture those who are new to the lifestyle and who, understandably, find it a little overwhelming. Harry is far from being the only ouroboran in existence, but they keep themselves to themselves, amassing great wealth and leaving it in trust for future generations. They are able to pass messages up and down the timeline, though these can take generations to reach their destination, and it is in Harry’s eleventh life, when he is on his deathbed again, that a seven-year-old ouroboran girl comes into his hospital room and tells him a message which has been passed down through the lifetimes from a thousand years in the future: the world is ending. Not only that, but it’s starting to get closer and closer. Ouroborans are being hunted, wiped out by forces unknown either by being forced to forget their past lives or by being murdered in utero, and the clock is ticking.
So, in Harry’s next life, he determines to get to the bottom of this mystery, while also evading capture and destruction.
There’s a lot of interiority in this book; we spend most of its 400 pages inside Harry’s mind. I love reading dialogue, and there’s not a lot of it in this book, by my standards, and what there is seems a little formal and ‘samey’; it can be hard to tell who is speaking, for instance, during Harry and Victor’s discussions about philosophy, science, and the nature of reality. This, though, is because they are both academics at Cambridge in the 1940s, and it’s true to this setting and era. The relationship between Harry and Victor is the most significant one in the novel, and I loved how it was managed; in lifetime after lifetime, they meet and influence one another in so many different ways, until one betrays the other. But it is this very act of betrayal which might be the key to solving everything.
This book was no easy read. It is not action-packed, and it is somewhat slow in places, but when a novel is dealing with such huge concepts, this is no surprise. I was left floored by North’s imagination and technical ability, but I’ve read some of the books she wrote under another name, which were written while she was still in her teens, and they showed exactly the same precision of language and depth of imagery as this book does. Learning that Catherine Webb and Claire North were one and the same came as no surprise to me; I could see the same skills she displayed in her earlier work coming to the fore again here, and it was a very pleasing thing. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that Claire North isn’t an ouroboran herself; it seems unlikely, to me, that one young woman (not yet thirty, I believe) could be so accomplished, had she not had centuries of living already behind her.
Hmm. Something to ponder…