The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North


“Complexity should be your excuse for inaction.”

I was born in 1973 in a village in Kent. So far as I know, only once. I have to say, when I die, if I were to be reborn as myself in the same village in 1973 again, I’d be a tad surprised! I mean 1973. I’d have to live through the ’80s again. Did anything good happen in the 80s?

But how would that repetition affect your life? Your relationship with your parents? With the world? With history? Immortal, yet destined to only see the same lifetime. That’s the basic premise of The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August. As a premise, it’s unusual and yet oddly familiar: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell was very similar save that you were reborn as a new person and the next generation; Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Even Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Harry is a kalachakra or ouroboran, one of many across the world, looping perpetually through their lives. We are never informed how or why these kalachakra exist and the question “What is the point of you?” echoes within the book. 

The cyclical nature of the protagonist’s life also affects the narrative structure a little in that occasional snippets and flashbacks occurred but the novel was generally chronological through Harry August’s lives. Certainly it lacked the complexity of structure which The Time Traveller’s Wife had. Nor does the book dwell on ethical questions, beyond the slightly unclear “Don’t bugger about with temporal events”. Harry decides to kill someone in almost every one of his lives because he murdered a friend in one. The lives of linears (normal un-re-born people… muggles I suppose) seem to be treated very poorly. As if their lives didn’t matter.

Philosophical ideas are thrown out: does each new life create its own alternative universe? 

None of it is really dwelt on.

The book which this reminded me of the most, however, was I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. It was, at heart, a thriller. Once you stripped out the reincarnation. Harry becomes part of The Cronus Club, an organisation generally aimed at self-preservation and support for themselves to avoid the ennui of repeated childhoods, as well as maintaining a temporal status quo. A shadowy figure emerges with a complex plan which threatens the world. Atrocities are committed. A confrontation occurs. 

It is a cracking thriller with a decent plot (the quantum mirror could be substituted for any weapon of mass destruction) and, despite developing over 400 years of linear time (give or take) a snappy pace. 

The relationship between Harry and Vincent, antagonists and comrades, loving and hating each other was played out well. With occasional moments of real tenderness and cruelty. Vincent, like Harry, is a kalachakra but rebels against the indolence and inaction perpetuated by the Cronus Clubs and he seeks to propagate the knowledge and science he discovers at the end of one life at the beginning of his next. In each lifetime, knowledge speeds up, discoveries are made sooner, boundaries are pushed further. The end of the world comes quicker. Harry and Vincent are two sides of the same coin, spinning together through their lives. Which reminds me of another Harry: young Mr Potter who carries around a portion of his nemesis’ soul with his own. 

The opening lines to the novel are addressed to Victor and encapsulate this:

I am writing this for you. 
      My enemy. 
      My friend. 
      You know, already, you must know. 
       You have lost. 

Time for a brief diversion. 

Books and authors and publishers are odd beasts, categorising each other and themselves… and then frequently deriding those categorisations. “What’s wrong with genre fiction?” is a frequent lament; “Literary fiction is so pretentious”. 

What is genre fiction anyway? Isn’t all fiction a genre? Isn’t fiction a genre? Well yes. My take on it though is this: if the author consciously adheres to the expectations of a genre then it feels like genre fiction; whereas, if the novel coincides with those expectations and conventions, it is not genre fiction just fiction. Within a genre but not for that genre. And then you get some clever buggers who write within a genre, consciously breaking the expectations, conventions and tropes. 
Me? I’m as guilty as anyone! I pigeonhole and categorise and shelve certain books together. I know I have a predilection for historical, crime and fantasy (especially with fairytale or Steampunk elements) and I enjoy that labelling process. Quite literally. When I moved house I enjoyed handing over my boxes labelled Gothic, Lesbian, Fantasy, Fairytale and the like!  Like many reviewers on WordPress, my list of categories demonstrates this rationalist love of classification! 

But I also like to think I am using those categories knowingly, with a half turned smirk. Post-modernly. Ironically. Because I also know that what makes a story work is utterly independent from its genre (literary or otherwise): characters, voice, language. Fun. Inventiveness. There is great genre fiction out there with all those features; there is also some very poor literary fiction.  I think that the reason genre fiction has come to be seen as a perjorative is that some writers adhere to the conventions as if they were rules. 

Now this has been a bit of a lengthy sidetrack. But it is because of a review I read of this book claiming that it was a crossover or breakout piece between science fiction genre fiction and literary fiction. I’m sorry if that was you and I’ve not credited you (let me know and I will if you want!)

I’m not sure I agree. I’m not even sure I’d agree it was science fiction. Sure, it’s sort of time travelling in a way but the science is pretty low impact. As I have said, it is a thriller more than anything else. A pretty damn good and different and unusual thriller but a thriller nonetheless.  


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