Harry August is on his deathbed. Again.
No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.
As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. ‘I nearly missed you, Doctor August,’ she says. ‘I need to send a message.’
This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.
It took me a long time to get around to reading this novel. I really don’t know why. Nevertheless, having now finished it, all I can say is: Wow. This novel is brilliant, and is an absolute must-read.
When I finished this novel, I felt rather lost. I was hooked from the beginning until the end, swept up utterly by the story and North’s prose. The titular character is wonderful and engaging, sympathetic and entertaining. Seeing him live his lives, learning and adjusting the more he (re-)experiences… This is a novel that really makes one believe in the power of storytelling. It would be very easy for me to over-do my praise, but The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August stormed its way onto my favourites shelf, capturing my attention and imagination.
The novel has an excellent plot that becomes clearer around halfway through. Up until that point, however, North is introducing us to Harry and his ouroboran life. We meet friends, family, loves and antagonists. We also meet the Cronus Club, comprised of other “kalachakras” who get to live their lives over and over. Born at different times, the way North uses their overlaps brilliantly (although, don’t think about it too hard, otherwise the timey-wimey stuff could present issues) – in one notable discussion between Harry (as a professor at Cambridge) and a gifted young student, the author takes us through a fascinating, mind-bending conversation about the paradoxes inherent in time-travel and foreknowledge. It was grippingly presented and superbly written.
It is a novel about love, loss, friendship and in many ways loneliness. The nature of self, how we live our lives, and many questions about what we might do if we got a second (and third, fourth, etc.) chance to re-do things. The story never gets bogged down with navel-gazing or over-long tangents. The story remains focused throughout. The structure includes plenty of back-and-forth between Harry’s lives, providing context and extra layers right when we need it.
There were plenty of interesting, sometimes amusing observations about getting do-overs during which you remember everything. Such as, when transitioning from an experienced, learned elder gentlemen to childhood:
“I was prepared to go through with it as long as the information acquired appeared to outweigh the boredom death induced.”
“I will never fully understand the notion of a suicide mission. For us it is relatively simple, entailing only the considerable boredom of youth as its primary consequence.”
North’s sense of humour is great, too: gentle, well-deployed and only makes Harry more endearing. For example:
“As a young man, I used to sport a rather ragged beard in the manner of my adopted father, Patrick; it doesn’t suit and in its untended state I can often come to look like a set of sensory organs lost in a raspberry bush.”
“The music was being produced by a would-be torturer aged seven and a half and her violin of pain… Over eight hundred years of reasonable living had rather dented my adoration for the works of the young. Surely I could not be the only creature on this earth who favoured prolonged incubation as a safer method of development than puberty?”
I’ve included only a handful of examples of great moments in the novel. North’s prose is superb: fluid, gripping, sometimes poetic. I was absolutely swept up.
Ultimately, there’s only one thing I really need to tell you about the novel: it’s superb. Easily one of my favourite novels of the past few years, it’s a must-read.
Very highly recommended.
I’ve been lucky enough to acquire a review copy of North’s next novel, Touch, which has shot right up my TBR pile, and I hope to read it in a couple of weeks.
“Claire North” is a pseudonym of Catherine Webb, who also writes as Kate Griffin. I have since gone and bought Griffin’s other novels (starting with A Madness of Angels).
As an aside, I wanted to share this excerpt, in which Harry reflects on China when he visits in the mid-20th Century (I have a professional interest in Chinese history, so it jumped out at me):
“Even though I was, technically, an ally from a friendly nation, my movements in Beijing were heavily restricted. It was a city going through tumultuous change but, with the state of the country being what it was, that change was hideously piecemeal. Whole districts of old Qing housing had been knocked down in a go, though no resources existed to replace the lost abodes. Great skyscrapers had been begun but then could not be completed, so a roof was slotted on some four floors up as if to say ‘This was our plan all along.’ Posters were everywhere, and the propaganda was some of the most colourful and, to my sensibilities at least, the most naïve I had ever seen. Ranging from the traditional staples of communist rule – images of happy families striving together against a red sky in a well-tended field – through to more unusual campaigns, such as suggestions that keeping potted plants would encourage clean living, or exhortations to mind your personal hygiene for the good of the nation, they reminded me of a sort of school art project plastered across the city. Nevertheless, the fervour behind much of the propaganda could not be denied, at least among our louder hosts, who spouted the rhetoric of the time with the passion of priests and who would, in a few years yet to come, probably believe the Cultural Revolution to be the greatest time of their lives. It was a reminder of the old truth that for tyranny to flourish all it required was the complicity of good men. In China at that time how many millions of good men, I wondered, were silently watching while this louder, snappier minority of believers marched and sang their way towards famine and destruction?”