The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

Posted: July 17, 2015 in Book reviews
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By Claire North

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Born shortly after World War 1 to an unmarried mother who dies the day he is born, Harry August is taken in by a couple who work on the same country estate where his mother had worked as a servant, and where his biological father is lord of the manor. Harry lives an uneventful life, and dies an old man.

At which point he is born again into the same life. This time, upon becoming a toddler, he begins to remember his first life. The shock is too much for his fragile mind to accept, and he winds up in a lunatic asylum.

When he is born once more into his third life he resolves to live his life differently, and to search the world to try and better understand why he keeps being reborn into the same life. In the course of his travels he becomes a member of the Cronus Club, a society that exists throughout the ages, made up of people like Harry, the Kalachakra, people who live, die and are then reborn into the same body.

As Harry becomes accustomed to his new found ability he lives each life slightly differently, becoming a Doctor in one, a scientist in another. Eventually, on his deathbed at the end of his 11th life, he is visited by a small child who tells him that she brings a message from the future Cronus Club, passed down from child to old person, child to old person…in the future things are changing, the world keeps ending and the apocalypse keeps happening sooner and sooner.

In trying to determine what force is destroying the future, Harry will meet a man who is at once his greatest friend, and his greatest enemy.

There are some books that are so good they’re actually a bit depressing for a writer to read, because you sit there thinking “I don’t think I could ever do something this impressive.” The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is that kind of book. 🙂

Claire North is the pen name of Catherine Webb, who apparently had her first novel published when she was just 15. This fact linked with the exemplary prose from someone who still hasn’t hit thirty leads me to suspect that she might be a Kalachakra herself.

Effectively this is a time travel novel, albeit a highly original one. There’s no time machine at play here, and we are as in the dark as Harry as to why he, and others, keep reliving the same life over and over. In other hands this might have made for a repetitious story, but North never lets the story fall into that trap. Harry might live through the same decades, but each time is very different.

For a story like this the devil is in the detail, and North seems to have planned this meticulously, because everything slots into place perfectly and it’s hard to identify any point where she slips up. The narrative is non-linear, with the narrator on occasion suddenly skipping back to regale us with an anecdote from his third life, or his fifth, or his tenth…On the whole this actually works very well, Harry is an engaging narrator, and the characters he encounters (life after life in some instances) all feel like fully realised people, and there is a certain sadness to the fact that when he reboots those people he encounters who are not Kalachakra won’t remember him. His fellow immortals (after a fashion) are an interesting bunch, some noble, some selfish, some just disinterested, and there is an interesting thread about determinism here, do our actions ever make a difference, even when we can do them over and over again, even when we can go left instead of right, and there’s a melancholy ennui to some of Harry’s brethren.

If the book has a flaw it is simply that on some occasions it is hard to keep track of which life Harry’s in at that moment, but these instances are rare, and probably unavoidable given the temporal spider web that North has crafted, it’s frankly amazing there aren’t more issues.

Inventive, original, thoughtful. I really enjoyed spending time with Harry August, and I heartily recommend seeking out his acquaintance.

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Comments
  1. Ana Spoke says:

    Sounds like a clever novel, and what a clever cover, too…

  2. Mim says:

    I have a feeling Pete has read this one. I really should get round to it!

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