[Note: this review has major spoilers. It also has some minor discussion of suicide and self-harm. The novel has a great deal of discussion of suicide and self-harm; I wouldn’t recommend it if you have triggers concerning those things.]
Harry August dies in the early nineteen-eighties, aged nearly seventy or thereabouts, and is born again. Not in the sense of being reincarnated, at least not conventionally: for he is born again in exactly the same place as last time, in 1919 in Berwick-upon-Tweed, in a station waiting room. He’s a kalachakra: one of a group of people who are always born again, as themselves, with their memories of their previous lives returning to them in early childhood.
This is the powerful idea that sustains The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and about the first half of the novel is devoted to exploring it fully, which is as it should be, because it’s a richer seam than you might think.Harry lives the same life over and over: that’s understood. It makes all his childhoods apart from the first an exercise in tedium, which isn’t something I had thought of, and then of course with a basic amount of the intelligence and all the time in the world, you can become an expert in anything. So Harry in his later lives is a polyglot polymath, having studied medicine, physics and history knowing he can become an expert in each. (I don’t know what it says that it takes him fourteen lives to come to my particular profession, but he even does become a lawyer at one point.) And right from the start, of course the novel engages with the classic SF premise of whether, armed with foreknowledge, we can change history – does this universe work this way, and if it does, should we? I’m told that Claire North is a pseudonym for an established author who normally writes very different books, which might explain why this novel takes such an unusual stab at an idea that’s kind of an SF old chestnut. Harry is trying to save the world from some future cataclysm – which is a conceit I last encountered in, of all places, Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books – and it’s interesting to see this trope played entirely straight, Harry journeying through the twentieth century on his mission to save the world. (He’s visited by another of his kind, from the future, carrying the message back in time – the end of the world is coming sooner and sooner. It’s that kind of thing that makes this novel, probably before anything else, a proper, compelling, thrilling page-turner.)
And in some ways, this is the other great strength of the novel, the life and colour that Harry’s sometimes very dispassionate narration can bring to the history of the modern world: Harry lives through the Second World War many, many times; he lives through the Cold War; he journeys through 1950s China and the 1960s USSR; he sees the Great Leap Forward, the Soviet closed cities, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan. He gets kidnapped by Argentinian bandits and he’s around in the early days of Israel. The chapters are short and often serve as short snapshots of a greater story, like all history.
Against that colour, there’s the contrast of a lack of colour: Harry’s childhood in the north of England as the illegitimate child of an impoverished aristocrat, spent on the Northumberland moors, with little parental love or ambition. Sometimes the narrative seems to be saying that that sense of alienation stays with him throughout his lives, which I actually don’t buy, but it’s complex. One thing the novel does spectacularly and chillingly well is to depict Harry’s increasing ruthlessness and increasing willingness to treat people as things, including, at times, himself. In his first life, we see him traumatised by his experiences killing enemy soldiers in the Second World War; in his third life, we see him tortured by an American intelligence agent who has (correctly) surmised that he can tell him how the Cold War turns out. It’s a turning point for him, Harry writes, because, “I learned that there is a black pit inside my soul with no limit to its falling”. Not being Harry, the reader can think instead that to want to die, to escape, is to be human. But in later lives, torture and death become strange, dark inconveniences, as does the childhood that follows; they are all as nothing in the face of his quest to save the world, that becomes, as he admits himself, a quest for vengeance. As above, I don’t buy that Harry’s childhood can be the cause of his increasing alienation, not when there’s also the simple fact that he lives over and over, without much companionship and a resultant tendency to regard ordinary people as “linears”, nothing to do with him – but the narrative occasionally doesn’t seem to know what to do with that idea, giving us a meandering daddy issues subplot that skirts the edge of it but never quite comes out and says it. Harry gets less and less human as his lives progress and eventually even the family subplot lapses, so perhaps it’s a wash. And at the very end, we get to the climax of the vengeance plan and it’s nothing to do with Harry’s early life: it’s just Harry August, his nemesis, and possibly the ending of the world.
What the novel is about, then, is about how a life can have meaning. How Harry’s life, which will be as long as he could possibly want, gradually reduces to one quest for vengeance; how in rejecting everything else, including love, faith, work, selfhood, it comes to mean very little to him, because those are the things that give life meaning. Which is a noble theme and a powerful one, as powerful as the starting premise, for those of us reading who don’t live the same life over and over. And for that reason, it’s a good book. And I don’t read literary fiction, for the most part – I’m not well-versed in its tropes, so perhaps this is a category-error criticism and if so I apologise. But perhaps, coming to this from the SF and not the literary standpoint, there could have been a little more redemption for Harry, a little sacrifice of theme to character rather than vice versa. Having spent four hundred pages on the first fifteen lives of Harry August, I think I wanted a glimmer of a happy ending for him, too.