Saturday, 17 June 2017

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Harry August has a pretty ordinary life. He is born in Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1919 and dies in a hospital in Newcastle in 1989. In the meantime he has different jobs, various relationships and tries to move on from his difficult family life. But when he dies he finds himself as a child again, regaining his memories of his prior life. This happens again. And again.

Harry is an Ouroboran, destined to live his life again and again. He is one of hundreds, and through the overlapping lifespans of Ouroborans it is possible to send and receive messages from the distant past and distant future. But, in Harry's eleventh life, the messages from the future start changing: the world is ending, and it is accelerating. When Harry's fellow Ouroborans start permanently dying (by someone assassinating their parents before they conceived) or having their memories wiped, and amazing technology appears decades early, he realises that one of their number has betrayed them and is using their power for their own ends, with destructive consequences for humanity.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was released in 2014 and won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, as well as being nominated for the Arthur C. Clark Award. It gained surprising widespread prominence after being featured on the UK's biggest TV book show. It is written by Catherine Webb under the pseudonym Claire North, which she uses to explore protagonists with unusual abilities (The Sudden Appearance of Hope is in a similar vein).

Webb is a constantly intriguing and interesting author, shifting genres and prose styles with enviable ease as she explores different ideas and characters. At her best, she comes across as a restless, far more prolific and slightly less repetitive (but also somewhat more wordy) Christopher Priest, with her books dwelling on themes such as identity and motivation amongst shifting realities and points of view.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August may be her finest novel to date. The central premise is incredibly strong and it deals with the existential questions surrounding the idea in surprising depth and with logic. Questions are raised such as if the Ouroborans are living in the same world, changing it each time they live through it, or if they are skipping from one timeline to another, and the moral consequences of that for the timelines they leave behind upon death. The overlapping lifespans of different Ouroborans allow them to bring back knowledge from the distant future (since an Ouroboran born in say 1984 dies in the late 21st Century, is reborn, reveals that information to another one who was born in 1925, who can pass it back in their next life etc) and this raises moral quandaries about if they should hoard their knowledge or try to improve humanity's lot.

This latter question consumes much of the novel, especially when it becomes clear that trying to change things often results in far worse consequences. But the dry time travel shenanigans are contrasted against Harry's characterisation, especially the trauma he carries from his first life and his intriguing relationship with a sometimes-nemesis Vincent. The path of the Ouroboran can be a lonely, frustrating one and Harry's dislike of Vincent for his relaxed morality is tempered with respect for his intelligence and just the company of a fellow travel on a journey through their looping lives. This relationship forms the core of the novel and is developed with relish by the author.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (*****) is a smart and thoughtful reflection on life, love, loss, identity, science and the end of the world. It is available now in the UK and USA.


Ted Cross said...

Just read this last month and did a podcast on it with two other authors. It's a really good read.

Anonymous said...

Seems very similar to Ken Grimwood's mid 80's novel "Replay"

little bit of nothing said...

What is the UK's biggest TV book show?

Adam Whitehead said...

Richard and Judy's Book Club, which is (or was, I have no idea if it's still going) part of their chat show (a bit like Oprah, only with a deranged lunatic of a presenter and his long-suffering wife).

We really don't have many TV book shows.

Vienneau said...

I got this from the library based on your review and I'm loving it - the base idea, the plot and the writing style all work for me. That's two books you've led me to that I've really liked, so keep it up! I really appreciate it.