The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (2014) 405 p.
Harry August is born on New Year’s Day in the women’s bathroom of Berwick-upon-Tweed railway station, the bastard child of a wealthy landowner and a maid. His mother dies in childbirth and Harry is raised by the landowner’s groundskeeper and his wife, taking their surname, forever unrecognised by his true family. He fights in the Second World War, returns to the estate to take over his adoptive father’s job, and dies of cancer in 1989 after a thoroughly ordinary life.
Then he is born again, in the railway station bathroom on New Year’s Day in 1919, and within a few short years he gradually remembers all that happened in his past life. Harry is a “kalachakra” or an “ouroboran” – a person fated to forever relive his own time upon the earth, becoming thousands of years old while he inhabits the same body and the same century over and over again. He is not alone; after a few repeated lifetimes he becomes acquainted with the Cronus Club, a network of kalachakra across human history who assist each other monetarily, most importantly by extracting fellow reborn kalachakra from the “tedious years of childhood” by endowing mysterious scholarships upon them, Citizen Kane style. Rescued from a few lonely, confused lifetimes of madness and religious solace, Harry soon finds that in the company of the Cronus Club, all the world – and all the 20th century – is his oyster.
This is not uncovered ground in sci-fi; Ken Grimwood wrote a novel in the 1980s called Replay and Kate Atkinson wrote Life After Life in 2013, both stories along similar lines, both of which were already sitting on my to-be-read pile. (I also have to mention here that the Cronus Club most strongly reminded me of 2014’s other novel about a society of constantly-reborn immortals, The Bone Clocks, although in that case they’re born into fresh bodies and are as constrained by linear time as the rest of us.) But of course it’s not an uncommon fantasy – I know I’d certainly thought of it long before I heard of any of these books. What would we do if we could go back to our youth as intelligent and mature as we are now? What would we do if we had literally all the time in the world, to accumulate all the knowledge and experience and wealth anyone could ever need?
Life is about choosing doors. Open one, and others become closed to you. I had any number of things I wanted to do when I was going out into the world after university: travel everywhere, crew on a yacht, teach English overseas, live in New York, drive a Kombi around Australia, et cetera ad infinitum. I also, one day, theoretically, want to have children, and I know that once you take on that responsibility an enormous number of doors are slammed shut. I still wonder, as I approach my 27th birthday, about which kind of 30s I’d like to have: the family and career-driven type, or the freewheeling vagabonding type. I try to avoid describing myself as a “writer,” because I think it’s pretentious, but let’s settle on “daydreamer:” I often put myself in other hypothetical shoes, and think about other imagined lives. And this means I naturally think a lot about about my own life trajectory, about my story, about why I did the things I did, about what I could still do and what I could once have done. Sometimes I forgot that not everybody else is consumed with an anxious appraisal of the ongoing narrative of their own life, and of the closing of doors with each passing year. This is also, I suspect, why I’ve fretted about my age throughout most of my 20s, to the irritation of my older friends and colleagues – not so much out of vanity or fear of mortality (though there is some of that) but about a sense of loss, a fear that maybe I haven’t lived my life to its fullest or been everything that I could have been.
And so the concept of reliving one’s own life, but with all memory intact, is quite alluring. Harry is a religious guru, a doctor, a physicist, a secret agent, a mob boss and more: he has literally unlimited time to take his life in any direction he pleases, secure in the knowledge that he has an infinite supply of do-overs. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is an irresistible wish fulfilment fantasy.
But it’s also a sci-fi thriller. It kicks off with Harry dying of cancer in his twelfth life, visited by a young girl who is actually, like him, thousands of years old. The Cronus Club uses overlapping lives as a conduit for messages between the past and the future, left engraved in stone or whispered from the young to the old; dying in the 1990s, Harry is able to deliver messages from recently-born kalachakra back his own youth in the 1920s, to people who were born in the 1840s, and so on. The young girl’s message is that the world is ending – and it keeps ending “sooner than it should.” One of the kalachakra, somewhere in the world, is tinkering with world events – a terrible crime in the eyes of the club – and Harry takes it upon himself to find out who and stop them.
So as well as a leisurely exploration of an intriguing concept, North gives us a potboiler mystery and adventure to go with it, and she does it very well. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is unusual for a sci-fi book: an excellent concept which is actually backed up by good writing and plotting. It’s a shame to say it, but it seems far more common in the genre to see a good concept poorly executed. Which is not to say that North doesn’t try and fail to induce a sense of philosophic weight to it all; more that her prose was quick and breezy enough for Harry’s semi-regular ponderings about the nature of infinite life to not take any weight away from the quick, exciting plotline. It’s good airport fiction, and in fact I read most of it on a very long flight from Europe to Australia. It won’t be nominated for the Booker any time soon, but the novel’s flaws are certainly outweighed by its strengths, and if the concept sounds interesting to you, I can promise it’s well worth your time.