It's pretty rare to find a book likeThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North — a page-turning thriller that packs a ton of clever plot twists and world-building that you just want to lose yourself in, but also immerses you deeply in questions of what it means to be alive, and the nature of time and selfhood.
Harry August has sort of the same set-up as the also-great Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: the main character dies and is reborn, over and over again, as the same person in the same life. Sort of a Groundhog Day-style loop that starts at birth and ends at death, whenever death happens.
But whereas the protagonist in Life After Life only retains a vague memory of previous lives, and seems to survive a little better each time through confusing trial and error, Harry August has a perfect memory of his past lives, every detail. In fact, he's rare even among the people who live the same lives over and over, because he's a "mnemonic," who can retain shocking amounts of information from life to life.
Not only that, but there's a whole secret society of people who live the same lives over and over, most of whom belong to a covert organization called the Cronus Club. North (who's apparently the pseudonym for a somewhat well-known author) has pretty carefully thought through how this would work, which is gratifying — basically every single "Ourobouran" gets one "turn" at living a life, all in a single cycle that lasts thousands of years. So, for example, Harry August never meets two different versions of the same person during one of Harry's lifetimes.
Not only do the "Ourobourans" remember events from the future via their previous lifetimes, but they can also pass messages further back in time. At the start of First Fifteen Lives, Harry August is on his deathbed in 1996 when a little girl comes to his bedside to tell him a message that's been passed down from a thousand years in the future: the world is ending. That, in itself, isn't a big surprise — but it's ending sooner than it's supposed to, with the end getting sooner and sooner. Which means that one of their kind, an Ourobouran, has been screwing around with history.
In a sense, this is a time travel novel without actual time travel, because only information (and personal memories) can travel back through time. Harry and his fellow "kalichakras" experience the same events, and meet the same people, with minor or huge differences each time. None of the normal people that Harry meets remember having met him in his previous lifetimes, giving him a huge unfair advantage over most people. And the knowledge of the future, and the intimate knowledge of other people who don't remember Harry, give him an almost godlike power at times.
Over the course of Harry's investigations, in fact, he discovers that the cause of the premature of the end of the world is someone from one of his previous lives — someone who wants to take the figurative godhood of being a near-immortal and transform it into actual godhood.
The sheer cracklike addictiveness of North's tight plotting can't be overstated — but the worldbuilding in this novel is also super-immersive. She takes a cool concept that a lot of other authors would be content to lean on (repeating lives) and builds it out into a whole world of clever uses, extrapolating all the different ways that people could make use of past-life memories, especially if they were working with others like themselves. There are nifty ideas every few pages — and it turns out there are two different ways to get rid of someone like Harry, each of them terrible in its own way.
The other great thing about having so many other "Ourobourans" around is that you see the whole range of ways that people deal with the boredom and limitless possibility that comes from getting to live over and over. By this means, North starts to build out the biggest question, of what gives meaning to existence when all of the basic needs (like survival) are stripped away. What's the point of going on living, when nothing is permanent and everything is repetitive?
It's a fascinating metaphor for what it's like to be alive in the early 21st century, when we're living longer, with access to seemingly limitless information, and (many of us at least) no longer need fear starvation or being eaten by wild animals. What's the point of just living and living, in endless comfort and safety? In a sense, too, North's "Ourobourans" are like the ultra-rich of late-capitalist society, freer and more powerful than ordinary humans but still trapped in our world.
The other thing that North explores, without ever feeling kludgy about it, is the sense of being trapped in history, which we all sort of know goes in cycles. You couldn't know on September 10th, 2001, that something terrible would happen the next day — but anyone with half a brain and a history book could know that something terrible always happens. Empires always fall, economies collapse, wars start, the world ends. Harry North visits the beautiful Buddhas of Afghanistan before the Taliban destroys them, fights in World War II over and over again, spends time in Beijing on the eve of the Great Leap Forward, and witnesses the churn of history over and over, surrounded by people who never see it coming.
Harry is constantly making wry observations like: "I met Vincent in 1945. The war was won, but rationing still cast its pall over my dinner table. It is petty, I know, to still find oneself frustrated by how bland the food is for so much of my early life, or how long it takes for central heating to become ubiquitous."
There are two other great things about Harry August, which elevate it above other, similar books — first, it's a real science fiction book. The antagonist's plan involves some fairly complicated physics (with a lot of handwaving) and there are long, involved discussions of quantum mechanics and the rigors of developing new, weird science. Second, there's not really a romance, to speak of, and it feels refreshing by its absence. Many authors, dealing with such a magical-realism-tinged premise, would avoid contaminating it with any discussion of science, and would contrive a reason for Harry to keep falling in love with the same woman (or man) every lifetime.
The relationships that Harry carries over from life to life, instead, are friendships with some of his fellow "Ourobourans" as well as his thorny relationship with his birth family and his foster parents — the more stuff Harry goes through, the more fascinating and complex his relationship with the family he keeps being born into gets.
North frequently uses a structure in which she alternates one chapter that moves the plot forward like a bullet train, with one chapter of Harry's random reminiscences that helps illuminate what's going through his mind — including remembrances from some other life that he's lived. This structure actually ramps up the suspense while also greatly increasing the sense of emotional complexity and worlds-weariness that makes Harry such a compelling protagonist.
North's prose is generally serviceable rather than sparkling, but she does pull off a lot of clever quips, like "Not many women can drink rum disapprovingly, but Akinyele could." Or, in the middle of talking about caged chickens on board a train in Russia:
Four hours into the journey and the uneven tracks — more so than I remembered — sent one flying, and its prisoner, white-feathered and red-eyed, spent nine glorious minutes in freedom, hurtling up and down the carriage, before a militia man with scaling skin and a suggestion of melanoma about the jaw, reached out with a single gloved hand and caught the bird by the throat. I saw its neck stretch, and the creature seemed as grateful as an animal with a brain the size of a walnut can be to be restored to its master and its cage.
The way she manages to convey a vivid image of this chicken, free but still trapped and terrified, and actually make you worry that it will have its neck snapped instead of being restored to its cage, is actually pretty amazing — especially in the middle of a section where the fate of the world is at stake.
So The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is absolutely worth tracking down, and throwing yourself into. All the best fiction gives you the thrill of imagining yourself living other lives, but few books do such a great job of giving you so many of them.