In brief: Every time Harry August dies, he is immediately born again with the knowledge of his previous lives. But now the world is ending…can he be the one to change things?
The good: Great take on the time travel idea, plus Harry is always inventive.
The not-so-good: I really didn’t like Vincent (but I don’t think I was meant to).
Why I chose it: I liked the idea and it was something outside my comfort zone.
Publisher: Orbit Books
Setting: All around the world
My rating: 9 out of 10
I’m not known for my love of fantasy or science fiction – in fact, I prefer my fiction rooted in reality. But there is something about multiple or parallel lives that interests me and Life After Life by Kate Atkinson was one of my favourite reads in 2013. When I first heard about The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, I was immediately interested. I was even more intrigued to read that the author’s name, Claire North, was a pseudonym for a well known British writer. Was J.K. Rowling doing it again? Would I be able to pick who this mysterious writer was?
The first thing I noticed with Harry August was that it was exceptionally well written and grabbed me from the first page. (In fact, it was lucky that I chose to start this on Easter Saturday afternoon because I read most of Sunday and the Monday holiday). The narrative transported me to a world that looked very like my own, but with some extra special touches. One of those special things is Harry – he casually makes reference to his first, fourth and eleventh lives like I’d make reference to a previous holiday. Who is this man? Well, Harry is a Kalachakra, meaning that every time he dies, he is immediately born again in the exact place and time. Better still, Harry begins to remember everything about his previous lives from the age of four or so. As Henry grasps this knowledge and accepts it, he begins to use it to his advantage – trying different careers, religions and women. While being tortured, Henry learns of a mysterious group called the Cronus Club, who appear to be just like Harry. He makes contact with this group and it’s at the end of his eleventh life when a child tells Henry that the world is ending. As Henry’s about to die (and then be reborn), he and other Cronus Club members can try to right things by going back in time… Can Henry prevent the end of the world, or will be have a role in its destruction?
I really enjoyed reading about Henry’s different lives – some are mundane (his first as a gardener), others interesting (as a neurologist) and some sad (his second, as a confused child). The author also makes light of the very boring things associated with living multiple lives – having to sit through school repeatedly when you know the content and being a wise 300-odd year old man in the body of a small six year old as just some of them. There’s a funny moment when Harry complains about how tiresome it is to go through yet another Blitz. Then the narrative begins to turn to action and adventure as Harry becomes determined to find and later bring down his nemesis. The story becomes more intense and I was reminded in some parts of Stephen King’s 11.22.63, as his hero fought to avoid JFK’s assassination. The story here is more straightforward, as it occurs over just a few lives with less of the backtracking across lives that charmed me initially.
Harry August also worked for me because besides the kalachakras’ knowledge of previous lives, the world is as normal as you and I see it. There’s some quirks (such as Cronus Club members having scavenger hunts across the globe and time) but it’s still a familiar setting. There’s just that special ‘what if’ factor and sparkle. There’s no geography of fictional lands to learn, languages or creatures – the majority is known. Some of the Cronus Club members’ attitudes were a little shocking to a single mortal – the casual attitude towards suicide I found odd (it’s like hitting reboot to them) and the extermination of a troublemaker through murder was a bit much for me. Happily, these are only minor points and I’d recommend this book to someone looking to have a brush with sci fi/fantasy/action.
Finally, Claire North has outed herself recently. She’s not who I guessed (Ian McEwan), but you can find out more about her alter ego here.