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

20706317I have been lucky, frankly, to be a member of a special sort of book club. It’s small. It’s like-minded. It’s opinionated. And it’s fiercely intelligent. Its members care deeply and strongly about literature. Normally, the book clubs in which I engage often operate on the following schedule: 20 minutes of book talk (normally of a shallow nature) and followed by the liberal pour of wine and gossip. I love those book clubs for what they are but the singular club of which I speak is sacred to me and has expanded my reading mind in ways I can’t even begin to articulate.

So instead, I shared with you one of our recent finds: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North. I feel as though it’s a bit sacrilegious of me to discuss the novel before my book club has had a chance to meet, but in doing so, perhaps I can organize my own insights before I engage in a deeper discussion with them of the novel in question.

Let’s begin.

The novel is categorized on Amazon as metaphysical and occult horror. I don’t entirely agree with either categorization. It’s definitely a meta novel and there are horrific scenes of torture throughout. But I wouldn’t necessarily define it as occult. It’s fantastical in a spiritual way that reminds me a lot of Lev Grossman’s The MagiciansThe novel’s plot follows Harry August, a Brit born at the turn of the 20th century who finds that, after he lives out his life and subsequently dies, he is reborn as himself and goes on to live a slightly different life again although he always remains as himself. It’s a twist on reincarnation where the reincarnation itself provides a limited time and space in which to operate; Harry can only move about through time in his own life span, hardly ever making it too far into the 21st century. A crucial element however is that he retains all memories of past lives. The cycle continues and the novel, as the title makes obvious, follows the first fifteen of his lives.

As the novel suggests, people with an endless loop of freedom and time could potentially intervene in major events. Want to assassinate Hitler or stop the atomic bomb from dropping on Japan? Unfortunately, no can do. All major events in history remain relatively unchanged, though it’s not clear if this is due to the unspoken rules of a secret club of these immortals of time called the Cronus Club (of which Harry is a member). And, if we really think about it, every time Harry dies, the world resets (though it’s ambiguous whether or not it’s the same world or same dimension). So how much intervention can one person do in a lifetime that will effect anyone or anything at all? What’s the point of it all?

For Harry, it’s all about learning. He is a mnemonic, someone with a perfect memory, who can recall every detail of each of his past lives. As such, he has copious knowledge about history, religion, politics, science, and languages. When you have almost a 1000 years to do whatever you want, learning to keep boredom at bay is a must (although he does dally a bit in addictive drugs for fun).

Now, how can a novel like this have a conflict? I have to say, I didn’t recognize the conflict until about halfway through the book: someone decides to begin picking off these immortals of time. The world – during each of Harry’s lives – accelerates to an end. Someone who is an immortal of time themselves has taken it upon themselves to end the world and those who can survive in a small loop of time as well. And of course, Harry knows exactly who it is. These immortals of time have a difficult time truly dying since physical death, for them, is merely a reset button. However, death is possible if a murderer goes back to their origin, the beginning of their life and abort them in their mother’s womb. This completely prevents someone like Harry from returning to life ever again. Morbid, I know.

The main themes that I noticed in the novel were two-fold: the consequences of progress and the desire of humans for immortality.

On the first front, I think North makes an argument that progress, in the technological sense, has a terrible price and that it is our ultimate demise. However, we can never shake progress’ hold on us and our desire for better weapons, faster technology, and more “advanced” world views. For normal mortals, technology is as close as they will ever come to being a god of some sort. Creating scientific innovation shows that we have a bit of a god complex within all of us. As the novel demonstrates, technology does get the characters dangerously close to the answers of all creation though it is at an absolutely terrible price. Essentially the universe has two controls: progress and time. You can slow progress down or speed it up but you can never stop it. Progress is our master and by succumbing to it in greater and greater measures, we lose a bit more of our humanity. And, as a terrible side effect, we destroy the world (environmentally speaking) in which we operate and thus end ourselves.

Second, if you look at Harry as a mortal human being which I did in moments throughout the book, you can’t help but notice his coldness.  He murders people throughout his many lives both in war and for personal reasons. He does so without a guilty thought. Even though he worries about the end of the world, everything operates on a personal level for him: he has an agenda that does not necessarily relate to a “greater good” for the rest of humanity (i.e. all mortals who are unlike him). He is selfish. He is the complete definition of a man who plays god. Or even worse, he is god.

I think that North’s argument is that even Harry August (a “good” man), who I do come to empathize with throughout the novel, is given something that the rest of us do not have and it changes him, I think, for the worse. He is given time. He is given a life essentially free of consequences (omitting the minor detail of the villainous man who goes about destroying the world). His only penance is that he must carry the knowledge of all his past lives with him. I think he is essentially the embodiment of a present, but unmoved and apathetic god. He cares only for himself and for the perpetuation of his existing loop.

However, even though he does play god with those around him, Harry is still ruled by time. It frees him and imprisons him. By enabling him to forget his mortality, I think it also begins to fade his humanity. When he murders a fellow immortal of time, she begs him by saying she isn’t ready to die even though she has lives many lives past the one many are given. The lack of threat of death also bequeaths a degree of unaccountability which I find fascinating.

This novel is engrossing. It’s meta. It’s heavy on the physics and religious spirituality. It’s a bit repetitive in style which I think was done purposely to denote the circularity of time and human moral compass. It’s pretty morbid. As a result, I highly recommend it because it forces you as a reader to look into your own quantum mirror and define what is important for yourself and what questions exist that will vex you for the rest of your time. It also forces you to acknowledge what it is that moves you through time. If it’s progress, does it have a cost? And why are we all so willing to pay it?

Or really, do we have any other choice?