Saturday, 11 April 2015

The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August by Claire North - Review

This is a story about a man who relives his life fifteen times, hence the title, and clocks up around eight hundred years of experience living through the same points in history again and again from 1919 to the end, and very rarely, beyond the 20th Century. He is the illegitimate son of a rich family, the product of rape, pain and the death of his mother. His first life is not a happy one and his second one is ended by suicide. After that things change, he accumulates knowledge by virtue of an infallible memory. He becomes a medical doctor, a scientist, a college don, a journalist, a mechanic, to name but a few of his occupations. After being revealed and tortured by the authorities in one life he finds there are many others like him stretching throughout time, each living their lives over and over as he does, when creation replays again and again.

Each time it replays identically except for these few who know it is repeating and have the freedom to make different choices. Then there is an enemy, one of Harry's kind who seeks to learn an ultimate truth and is willing to sacrifice whole iterations and generations of his own kind in order to achieve it. The story not only centres on Harry's life, but his friendship with this man, and his fight against him.

The author has created a complex tapestry of cause and effect, all woven around extensive research of 20th Century events. The story is also told from Harry's point of view, but not a Harry who experiences as we the reader experiences. This is the old Harry recounting his life with all the wisdom and benefit of hindsight, an ancient who can remember his very beginnings, his feelings and rationale, but always with a certain distance. We never feel as if the character is in any real danger, but the vivid recollection of his experiences and the mainly non linear approach to the narrative make this book almost impossible to put down. I was captivated by it, and I could very easily believe that Harry August was real, telling his story, and it all happened just as he said. I read this in two days flat despite work and family commitments because I had no choice in the matter. I needed to know what happened next, the author had that power.

Where does it fall down? Well, the logic of cause and effect. I can understand that Harry is born again and again and that is possible if he is alone in that condition. All the circumstances leading up to his birth, every coincidence, every incident, every flap of a butterfly's wings, would repeat flawlessly in each iteration of time to create him anew. However, if there are others born before him then circumstances change. Even if just a few hundred of his kind exist before he did, they live different lives each time, which in turn would create different effects spreading forward in time. Even if the general flow of time remained the same, it is the smallest details that would change, the difference between crossing the road at a certain time, or missing a train. Time would change. Instead the novel posits that time can only be changed by a tipping point in events. As long as the repeaters do not change things too much, time plays out identically around them. It is only when one of their number, Vincent Rankin, decides to speed up the advancement of science for his own end that time becomes broken.

The only way to kill Harry, Vincent, and the others for good, is to find a point of origin and have someone born beyond that point murder the parent before the child can be born. Under the rules of the novel, once this happens a person dies for good and can never be reborn again. Time is reset because the changes they made are never made in the next iteration of creation.

I loved this book, and despite the cause and effect logic not quite working, it didn't matter to me. In the context of the story I accepted those rules. It is a compelling read, and while it does echo some of the themes of the novel 'Replay' by Ken Grimwood, it feels thoroughly original in its approach and execution. It has action, but at its heart it is a contemplation of eternity and of living without end. What choices would you make?

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