As 1918 turns into 1919, Harry August is born in the ladies washroom of a railway station in England’s northeast; a birth that the mother does not survive. This, though, is not the first time. Harry August is one of the Kalachakra, or the ouroborans, people who are born time after time, reliving the same years but with the ability to make changes within their lives. This is because they are able to remember past lives. It also qualifies them to become members of the secret but widely spread Cronus Club, an organisation that exists to help those who are born this way but also there to ensure that certain rules are obeyed. When Harry is on his deathbed for the eleventh time, a young girl gives him a message handed down from the future into the past warning him of the end of the world. It is up to Harry, and men and women like him, to save the future.
The understanding that one will never permanently die, that one will always have to go through yet another childhood but with the experiences of an adult making one different from everyone else, has to twist and mark the character in so many ways. Along with the knowledge that past mistakes can be avoided comes the increasing awareness that it’s not possible to save everyone else. Harry August lives a succession of alternate lives, exploring different roles and relationships with wives and family, and trying to determine what the point is of it all. When Harry is given the apocalyptic message from the future he is given the chance to explore that point, bringing him into contact with other ouroborans, all of whom are dealing with the same problem of purpose in different ways.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a marvellous novel, rolling up several genres into one, including thriller and science fiction. It is clever and full of grand themes but it is also witty and alive with fascinating characters, many of whom have their own ideas about how to take on this world that won’t let them die. The humour in some of the situations – there are some great scenes from Harry’s academic days, especially when out punting on the Cam with friend and verbal sparring partner Vincent – contrasts with the violence of others. Harry has to endure great suffering during some of his lives. Then there is the matter of the Second World War – how many times would one want to fight in that?! The novel is told in the first person by Harry himself which means that we are able to engage with him as he works out who he is, what he is and what he can and cannot do. It is wonderful prose, always engaging and pacey, through good times and bad. Harry is an immensely likeable leading character and there are others, too, that it is impossible not to care for even when perhaps one shouldn’t.
Comparisons with Life After Life by Kate Atkinson are inevitable. In that novel, though, Ursula is in a very different situation, not able to remember the past, and the premise is used for an alternative purpose which has nothing to do with science fiction. In Harry August, discussions of the philosophical and moral consequences of the rebirth (and repeated dying) of the Kalachakra is paired up with a pageturning thriller, fed by its SF time travel, futuristic, multi-universe themes. Harry’s story hops and leaps between his different lives, travelling backwards and forwards between the realities, as he picks up the scent.
As the novel goes on, Harry August becomes an unputdownable race of a thriller. Its plot is brilliantly structured and paced. It twists the brain in all kinds of directions but never stops being thoroughly entertaining. Claire North is, apparently, a pseudonym of a well-known British author. After reading Harry August, I can’t help wishing that I knew who she/he is!