I can’t remember how I heard about “The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” by Claire North but I do remember being seized with an urge to read it posthaste.
So I read it. It was …. ok. It reminded me of the books I used to read when I worked at the university – when I had my commute and lunchtimes to pass buried in words, and I’d go through three or four books a week. I read more fiction then, picking up anything that sounded vaguely interesting and by and large, those books, like this one, held my attention, enjoyably passed the time but ultimately didn’t wow me.
I love the premise: that’s what grabbed me to begin with. As the title suggests, our protagonist Harry August is a little different to the rest of us – he consciously lives his life over and over again, knowing how to do things different each time around. It’s not an unprecedented idea – the do-over concept is a common trope in fiction (to pick three recent well-known examples, ‘Groundhog Day’, ‘All You Need Is Kill’/‘Edge of Tomorrow’, and ‘Life After Life’) but it still intrigues us because I think we’ve all imagined ourselves in that position: personally, I often wonder what I would do different if an adult-me found herself going through her younger tribulations, how I’d make a quick buck and how I’d have to contrive event to ensure I end up with my favourite things from this life in my strange new reality.
One thing that sets ‘Harry August’ apart from the other examples I’ve given – and my own daydreaming – is that Harry isn’t the only one with this power: it’s not a universal condition but there are enough ‘kalachakra’ to form the Chronos Club, an international organisation for mutual financial, physical and mental support across the centuries of their existence. Harry finds out about the Club towards the end of his fourth life and it quickly becomes a central part of the story, allowing Harry to make valuable friends – and enemies. I thought this club was a captivating idea – and loved how its members helped “extract” each other from the tedium of childhood, could pass messages back and forth across centuries, and played hide-and-seek games with each other to pass the time. The people Harry meets through the Club fill out the world – the only constants across his lives except for the family he flees from early on – and we get glimpses of how other people deal with the experience of extended existence.
So it had an appealing premise and a solid backbone – but it was not the book I wanted to read. About halfway in, it becomes a thriller: the bookish doctor/theologian/physicist becomes a spy, an action hero, a criminal mastermind, and ultimately, the man who saves the world, growing increasingly omnipotent and violent along the way. I didn’t want that. I’m not a fan of thrillers generally – I like my fiction to be about people not action – and that’s what I wanted here. I wanted to hear more about how it felt to interact with “linears” (as the kalachakra call them) – his family, his partners: I wanted to hear whether it felt like they had one life, or many, because he saw them in all of his; I wanted to know if he pulled back from them because it was too hard to lose them, or whether he enjoyed their fleeting existence; and I wanted to discover how he felt towards them (us) generally, if he looked down on them (on their stupidity in comparison to his wealth of experience & knowledge, their concern with what he could see were trivialities in the long run, their inability to truly have any impact on the world & time) or whether he was envious of the simplicity of their single lives. We had fleeting hints at these sort of things – a wife in an early life who reappeared later for example – but I wanted more. Similarly, he makes friends with other kalachakra but with most, we only see surface level relationships: they’re typically tools rather than developed characters in their own right.
(I can’t talk about his main relationship, with another kalachakra, without spoiling everything but it felt one sided to me: that the other person had a genuine connection with Harry, seeking him out when logically he shouldn’t have, while Harry was only there for carefully calculated reasons. This, strangely, made me feel the other character was more sympathetic than Harry.)
I also wanted to know more about the effect of centuries of experience has on his mind. He is unusual even for a kalachakra because he remembers everything that has ever happened to him in every lifetime (most only remember the broadstrokes) – which I imagine would have its disadvantages as well as plus points. We know a few very extreme incidents play on his mind (for example, Phearson, in his fourth life) but don’t hear if centuries of little things builds up too. (I’ve only got a pretty good memory and have built up an almost unwieldly amount of day to day nonsense in just 36 years.) Towards the end of the book, he talks of being increasingly “dead inside” as he commits heinous acts in order to save the world – but it doesn’t feel like we really knew him as being “alive inside” first. Even after spending centuries with him, I felt like we didn’t know him – the real him – much at all.
His exceptional memory becomes his main superpower: he can learn all sorts of skills (languages, sciences and moneymaking schemes) and this turns him into a bit of a Superman – and like with Superman, it quickly becomes a bit boring. He needs perfect Russian language skills down to regional accent? Done. He needs ace fighting skills and groups of mercenaries available in every country? Done. He (and the other main character) need to understand the impossibly advanced quantum physics/engineering/chemistry? Snooze. He is even so awesome that he survives “the Forgetting”, a full brain wipe, not once but twice. Erasing their past lives is a form of death for the kalachakra and we see the impact that it has on the individual and, if carried out en masse, on the whole structure of kalachakra society – but Mr Invincible is fine. That became my main issue with the second half of the book: once the action got underway, I didn’t fear for him or doubt that he would win in the end, but because we lost many of his compatriots, it became flatter, increasingly single player – just Harry versus the antagonist. I kept waiting for a twist – to learn that Harry wasn’t as indomitable as he thought would have cut through this Marty Sue falseness – but it, disappointingly, never came.
Even with its surface nature and a plot as straightforward as possible in a non-linear, multiple-lifetime recount, the book felt rather cluttered. It was overly wordy/overly written in parts and detail/theory dumping in others. (This was particularly problematic for me early on, with the glut of information about his extended biological family – I almost wanted to put the book down at the point.) With the iterative nature of his existence, I happily accepted some repetition but a few parts felt like they were treading water: for example, though I understand the necessary building, his second innings as the “Secretary of State” hit many of the notes of the first which slowed the pace at a key point.
Finally, at the very beginning and very end of the book, it is framed as a deathbed confession to the antagonist, but in the middle, it seems to forget that device: we’re told background that the antagonist would blatantly know or would not care about in the slightest – not the type of stuff that someone in agony would bother spending time on typing out. I also spotted a couple typos and a few small inconsistencies (things I thought would be part of a twist but which didn’t go anywhere, so that they just stood out as odd instead): nothing major but final confirmation of a growing feeling that the book could have been much improved by a good editor.
Despite writing a thousand pretty negative words here, I’m not saying it’s a bad book. It kept me gripped and it didn’t languish on my bedside table, forlorn and increasingly dusty, because I would rather read Twitter than it at bedtime. I just wanted it to be smaller, and it went big. For people that like more action packed books, I imagine they’ll love it. I told John the premise and he’s intrigued too – he’s not particularly one for thrillers, but he jokes that his ideal novel is a bullet point list of facts so maybe he won’t mind the superficial characters. Meanwhile, I’ve bought ‘Life After Life‘ and added that to my reading pile – perhaps that will sate my urge for a more inward facing telling.