Entertainment Books

Thursday 5 December 2019

Time travel – but is 15 lives enough to save the world?

Book review: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North

The Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
The Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Sean Farrell

Reincarnation has been "done" before, many times, but not like this. Harry August is a Kalachakra, born on New Year's Eve 1918 in the washroom of a railway station in northern England.

He lives a normal life, but when he dies he is reborn, on the same date and in the same place. His fate is to repeat this forever but with the complete memories of all his previous lives, so he can build on and change each later existence.

This is a superb novel, part thriller, part science fiction involving time travel, and part a serious and reflective look at our times.

Harry August is a wonderful character, easy to empathise with. In his various incarnations and using his accumulated knowledge, Harry becomes a doctor, a weapons scientist, a lecturer, a multimillionaire and a master criminal.

He dies prematurely, commits suicide, murders (albeit a serial killer), is murdered, and, when he lives a normal span, normally succumbs to cancer in his late sixties. He is not unique; there are others like him fated to be reborn with prior knowledge but unable to alter history.

Their self-regulated role is to be passive spectators of the "lineal" lives and events of their times. To interfere would risk collapsing the whole of existence.

Hitler cannot be killed in 1932, JFK cannot be persuaded to cancel Dallas, Hiroshima cannot be saved. There can be some tinkering at the margins – the odd forecast on the horses – but nothing to make waves – no Euromillions mega win.

Harry's lives, their highs, their lows, his loves, his friendships, his righting of wrongs where he can, are recounted sympathetically and make for an extraordinary story.

But then a game changer threatens his very existence. Near the end of his 11th life, a little girl visits his bedside. She delivers a message "from a thousand years forward in time".

The message is that the world is ending and only Harry can prevent it because only Harry can reach back far enough in time to eliminate the problem.

The threat is real. Harry discovers that many of his fellow Kalachakras are being eliminated permanently or their prior memories wiped.

Harry must respond and the novel develops into an enthralling page-turning thriller as he chases down his quarry, not just across the world but through several lifetimes before the shattering climax in his 15th life.

Claire North is a pseudonym for an acclaimed British author with several successful novels published, all completely different to Harry August. No further information on the writer is available.

The book is extraordinary and could well become one of the books of the year.

All the more puzzling, therefore, that the author maintains close anonymity.

If I were asked to speculate, it would be that I suspect the author is male, that if Anthony Burgess were still alive it could be him, and that it might be one of Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, William Boyd or Julian Barnes.

It's a really different book, which will get people talking. Highly recommended.

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