Books

Claire North
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a science fiction novel, of a sort, in that it usesa fantastical conceit to drive the plot. Elements of historical fiction, spy thriller and a comedy of manners are blended as we follow the lives of our narrator, Harry August, who can’t stay dead.  

Harry is an Ouroboran, an individual who is reborn after death, exactly as they were – all the memories of their previous lives intact – to live the same life over again. The story starts with a message from a distant future reaching Harry just before his imminent death and resurrection. The world is ending, and it is up to him to find out why. 

So far so good, but author Claire North takes what could be a half-cocked idea and makes something brilliant. North is apparently the nom de plume of “an acclaimed British author who has previously published several novels”, which is a bit of a cheeky bio for an author vying for anonymity, but no matter, they clearly know what they are doing. As Harry lives his life over and over, the narrative skips all over the place to seamlessly fill in plot holes. If Harry needs to know how to gunfight we flash back to his life as a soldier. By virtue of lives spent wandering, he speaks most languages. If North wants to spend a couple of chapters in Soviet Russia, then we are treated to Harry’s time as a spy.  

The constant in all these lives is the inescapable entropy of humanity, both for the individual and as a species. Harry is haunted by deeds and traumas from past lives, and these echoes drive him on subsequent live-throughs. Although tasked to save the world, he is just as likely to retreat from it, idling on a kibbutz in Israel or shooting heroin in China, rather than fighting against the looming cataclysm. The big question that fizzes under the prose is, what is a lifetime for?

Which is not to say that it is overly didactic or heavy-handed; God, it’s fun. Every hyperbolic cliché you could apply to a review fits this book. It grabs you from the first page; it crackles along at a rollicking pace; it is a jolly romp. It is, indeed, unputdownable.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is not perfect, by any means, but whatever a lifetime is for, there are worse ways than to spend a few hours of it with this highly enjoyable book.  ZC

Orbit, 416pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 12, 2014 as "The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North". Subscribe here.

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