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

We are no more or no less than minds, and it is human for the mind to be imperfect and to forget.

I am generally not a fan of anything resembling time travel. The hook has to be quite unique in order for me to overlook the massive paradox of time travel. I liked Looper to my own amazment (though I am still not sure what the whole telekinetic thing had to do with the story at all?) and I like Back to the Future, but not a whole lot else. Paradox annoys me. Keeps me up at night, makes me angry, even. 

But every so often, there is a time travel book or movie that approaches it so differently that I am drawn in, and then sometimes, it turns out to be a book that doesn’t seek to explain the paradox, that struggles with paradox as I do, and is all the better for it. 

Right now, that book is The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. And I highly recommend it. 

Synopsis

The extraordinary journey of one unforgettable character – a story of friendship and betrayal, loyalty and redemption, love and loneliness and the inevitable march of time.

Harry August is on his deathbed. Again.

No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.

Until now.

As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. ‘I nearly missed you, Doctor August,’ she says. ‘I need to send a message.’

This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow

The premise is this: a boy is born in 1919, lives his life, dies, waits and then comes back again to do it all over again. Over and over. More over, there are more people who do the same thing – they are reborn, over and over, live lives as different or as similar as the ones they already lived, and try to make sense of it – until they grow bored with the lack of answers, and just start enjoying life, “forgetting” or trying to become god-like. Those appear to be the options left to seemingly near-immortal beings, such as they are in this universe. 

Harry is an interesting character, for all this. He narrates everything with the air of an old man relaying to his descendants his life story – himself so removed from the events of his own life that the telling of it takes on an almost methodological bend to it, where the life events (of each life), whether happy or traumatic or soul crushing or desperate, all have the same sort of timbre – of events of consequence that pile up into somewhat of a harried state, but unreachable. He is slow and thoughtful, going through each life, and each stage of his life as he remembers it, and he remembers everything. He never truly seems happy – not even in his first life (where he is uknowingly a member of this club of immortals). Instead, he seems always on the verge of some cosmic judgement, his tangential discussions on memory, the perils of living so long and the bane of memory surrounding an otherwise interesting and magnificent life. 

Harry’s life eventually crosses that of the Cronus Club –  the group of individuals, like Harry, who are born again and again over the ages. There are several types of Cronus Clubs, geographically, and throughout time. As each generation is continuously born again and again, history always changes here and there, but each generation of the Cronus Club promises to make money for the next, and so on, with clues written in stone for the next generation, and whispers relayed by the youngest members of the newest generations to the oldest members of the previous, in order to better understand all those changes. 

And here we come to paradox. 

There are many paradoxes int his – and North attempts a conversation of them several times throughout the book, with discussions of rewriting/wiping the slate clean or splitting off into a infinite number of universes with each decision in each life (that is, consequently, the theory I prefer). But instead of delving deep into and making the book turn on the paradox, North doesn’t highlight them and instead turns them into a philosophical dilemma – if you’re born again and again and nothing changes, why care about the state of the world at all? You may save a girl from being hit by a bus, but she’ll just die again in your next life when you don’t get to her in time. It’s a question of apathy and time, and it is a wonderfully complex delving into it. 

A review is unfortunately not nearly enough time to unwrap this – it’s a wonderful story with so many layers and I would highly recommend it for most people – those who enjoy sci-fi, those who enjoy thrillers and historicals, too. Those who like discussions of science and theory and the changes to technology in the 20th century. And anyone who likes to have their minds tested to the fullest capacity – because the concepts and theories of this book go beyond just a thriller or just a time travel novel – they’re so deep and varied, such a wonderful discussion on so many levels, that I think there may be something for everybody to latch on to. 

So go forth and try it out – well worth the read! 

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