Rebecca's Reviews > The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
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really liked it
bookshelves: dystopian, fantasy, historical-fiction, illness-and-death, read-via-netgalley, science-fiction, suspense

The theme of a character reliving the same life over and over will no doubt have you thinking of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life*, but this book is so much better. Perhaps simply because of the first-person narration, I developed much more of a fondness for Harry August and his multiple life stories than I ever did for Ursula Todd.

“I am not one Harry August but many, a mind flicking from parallel life to parallel life...when I die, the world carries on without me, altered by my deeds, marked by my presence.”

Harry is a kalachakra (“time-wheel” in Tibetan Buddhism) or ouroboran – a figure who keeps coming back around in what looks to be an endless cycle of rebirths. In North’s fictional world, 1 in 500,000 are born into the condition, which often earns them persecution – but also gains them entry into the exclusive, worldwide Cronos Club. Harry, the illegitimate son of a servant girl, is born in the same manner each time – on New Year’s Day 1919, in the ladies’ restroom at Berwick-upon-Tweed rail station! – but becomes many people in his different lives: he fights in the Second World War (seven times); he tries the medical profession, God, and especially quantum physics; he is drugged in a mental institution, impersonates a Soviet propagandist in Beijing, and (my personal favorite incident, for sheer randomness) pays a visit to a clotted cream farmer in Devon.

Some of the humor (e.g. “No one ever considers the question of bladder when dealing with matters of subterfuge”), as well as the more far-fetched aspects of the plot, reminded me of Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker or The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who..., but this is a much darker book overall. The dystopian aspect rather surprised me, in fact. Most members of the Cronos Club use their advanced knowledge to try to prevent murders, or win people a bit of money in the races. However, one particular kalachakra, soon to become Harry’s nemesis, takes it upon himself to introduce modern technology earlier and earlier. Just as an early ouroboran proposed the steam train in 1693, this fellow will contribute to the adoption of the PC in 1959 and the cell phone in 1975. But this “great technological surge” will have consequences, as global warming speeds up by several decades: “The world is ending, as it always must. But the end of the world is getting faster.”

In general, I don’t really read books that could be classed as fantasy or dystopian sci fi, but I was glad I made an exception for this literary take on the genre. Great fun. Give it a read.

[I kept thinking that this book was far too good to be a debut novel...that’s because it’s not. Claire North is the pseudonym of Catherine Webb, who also writes series sci fi under the name Kate Griffin. Between those three author names she’s written about 15 books – and she’s only 32! The marketing of this book is rather clever, actually, because if it had been packaged like any of her other novels, I would have dismissed it as fantasy dreck and never given it a try.]

*A phrase that appears twice (on pages 211 and 375 of the e-galley); also, a major character’s mother is late on revealed to be named Ursula.
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Reading Progress

February 15, 2014 – Shelved
February 15, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
April 27, 2014 – Started Reading
April 29, 2014 – Shelved as: dystopian
April 29, 2014 – Shelved as: fantasy
April 29, 2014 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
April 29, 2014 – Shelved as: illness-and-death
April 29, 2014 – Shelved as: read-via-netgalley
April 29, 2014 – Shelved as: science-fiction
April 29, 2014 – Finished Reading
April 30, 2014 – Shelved as: suspense

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by Alejandro (new)

Alejandro Very good review!

I already have this book in my TBR list to read it soon. :)

Roger Brunyate Somebody else suggested this to me, Rebecca, but it took your review to convince me. R.

Rebecca Roger wrote: "Somebody else suggested this to me, Rebecca, but it took your review to convince me. R."

Thanks, Roger. Hope you enjoy it! I've tried another North book since and was disappointed, but this one is a great read.

Roger Brunyate I've finally read it, Rebecca, and liked it maybe even more than you did. But I found it an unusually hard review to write, which makes me admire the relative simplicity of yours that much the more. R.

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