Book Review: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (Orbit – 2014)

From the title, you will probably guess that Harry August does not have just one life to live.  In fact, he does not have fifteen either.  Harry is a rare type of person who lives his life again and again.  “How very dull” you might think.  However, Harry and a select few like him does not just relive his life, he remembers his past lives allowing him to live a different life each time, but over the same time period.

Harry describes three stages of life for those who live life in cycles, ‘rejection, exploration and acceptance’ An interesting twist on how people would normally live their lives, maybe even a reversal.    What would your reaction be to remembering a previous life?  You could avoid previous questionable life choices,  become a millionaire and take greater risks with impunity.  

Despite, or because of, the many incidents, tragedies and pain in Harry’s lives he is quite the stoic.  He is a very likeable character but accepts most things that happen to him with equanimity.  This is possible because whilst even the greatest trial might cause him pain and death, it does not end his life.

The writing is often humorous, Harry fights in World War II in many of his lives and in one of them he sells his medal in 1961 when he needed to pay for a new boiler.  In describing the lives of ‘immortals’, Claire North also writes in a way which can seem quite profound.  A character states:

“.there is no greater isolation a man may experience than to be lonely in a crowd.  He may nod, and smile, and say the right thing, but event by this pretence his soul is pushed further away from the kinship of men.”

This is likely to strike a chord with many.   Less seriously, it is also an apt description of my experience of Twitter.  

Harry finds others like himself and discovers the Cronus Club, a loose affilition for helping those who lives are circular and preventing the excesses of their peers who might use their knowledge to cause great disasters.

Claire North introduces a very novel approach to the sci-fi time travel trope.   Whilst Harry, and those like him, are borne at exactly the same time and place following each death, messages can be passed backward and forward through the ages.  It takes a few minutes to get this straight in your mind but its an impressive invention.   At one point a 6 year old Harry goes to deliver a message to a very old man who is dying in hospital so that he can pass it on when he is reborn.  Harry studies the old man’s medical notes and the old man says;

Can’t stand bloody doctors, especially when they’re five years old.”

Harry befriends Vincent Rankis, a brilliant scientist whose hubris threatens everyone.  Vincent wants to build a machine that will be able to explain and predict everything.  Harry assists him but must eventually aim to restrain Vincent.  This seemed to be something of a critique on over-reaching and the amoralism of scientific pursuit.  Scientists might say that their discoveries are neither good nor bad, it is the use to which people put them that leads to moral judgements.  

This is a gripping and excellently written book, one of the best I have read this year.