Book review: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Updated: Jul 29, 2021
Is it the best book ever written? Probably not. Almost certainly not. No. Is it still amazing? Yes.
This review is spoiler free.
Trigger warning: This book contains graphic suicide scenes.
“They say that the mind cannot remember pain; I say it barely matters, for even if the physical sensation is lost, our recollection of the terror that surrounds it is perfect.”
― Claire North, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Claire North (the pen name of Catherine Webb) is my favourite contemporary author. Period. J.K. Rowling didn't lose the spot when she turned out to be an awful human, Claire took her spot years ago. Anne Rice is perhaps a close second. I have read every single one of North's books, and enjoyed each of them greatly. However, there's only one I reread once a year, and that's The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.
Back of the book stuff
This is ripped entirely from Clair North's website. I want to talk about the bigger themes of this book over the plot, so here's the sypnosis:
"No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before.
Nothing ever changes – until now.
As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. ‘I nearly missed you, Doctor August,’ she says. ‘I need to send a message.’
This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow."
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August has a mix of everything I Iike in my media.
Science fiction elements.
A clear set of rules for the characters abilities.
Interesting characters with sensible character arcs.
A complete lack of romance. I just realised I like this... Huh...
Thoughtful dialogue is had between characters that doesn't come across as exposition, but rather an interesting philosophical conversation between two scholars. Things like the Grandfather Paradox are discussed, and although it doesn't move the plot forward in any way, it gives us a deeper look into the characters and the greater world of the book.
The importance of setting rules in your story
To understand what elevates this book from good to great, you need to understand how well it sets up its rules.
Many science fiction or fantasy stories have a number of rules when it comes to their magic, technological, or societal systems. A good example of this is time travel. Usually, a writer will set up the rules for their version of time travel e.g. you can't go back and kill your grandfather because then you'll never have existed in the first place to kill him (aka the Grandfather Paradox). Clear rules like this are required because they bring tension to the plot as a problem for the protagonist to resolve. Another good example is the magic in Harry Potter. We are told that it is impossible to create food and money with magic. This is used so that we can see how different classes of wizards live, like the Weasleys vs the Malfoys. However, the more expansive your story gets the more likely you are to start seeing holes in it. The incessant need to break even basic magic rules for the Fantastic Beasts films are a great example. Accio can only be used on objects in the original Harry Potter series, but Newt uses it on creatures in Fantastic Beasts. Hopefully we see the end of the Harry Potter Universe before Rowling tweets that Santa went to Hogwarts, was housed in Slytherin, and his helpers are House Elves (imagine living in the North Pole with no clothing. Grim).
The rules of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August are simple. Kalachakra are rare humans that die and are reborn into the exact same life. Like Groundhog Day, but your whole life is repeated. You have all of your memories from your previous lives, and they slowly fade with time. You are able to purge your memories with a simple procedure that breaks down to electronically lobotomising yourself before you die. Some among the Kalacharkra have a further trait where they never forget their memories and are immune to the electrical lobotomy. Finally, the kalacharkra all appear to be infertile. What I love about rules like this is that they are easy to understand and they are concise enough to fit into one paragraph.
I love rules. First year Hermione has nothing on me. Nothing is more distracting to me than a hole in a set of rules. An example of simple rules broken in a stupid way is the film Looper. We are told right at the beginning of the film that the reason people are bought back to the past to be assassinated is because it is impossible to get away with murder in the future. That is the whole premise of the movie, the reason the main character exists. But we see that Joe's wife gets murdered in the future when he escapes to the past. This essentially removes the entire need for Joe and the other Loopers' existence, as you clearly can murder someone in the future. But whatever, Bruce Willis shoots all the people and this is what the people want.
North does not break these rules while telling her story. This is a testament to her writing as well as the fact that she cleverly chose simple, straightforward rules.
Tension through narrative
Like my previously reviewed book I'm Thinking Of Ending Things, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August does an exquisite job at building tension through narrative. What do I mean by this? I mean that through only thoughts and conversation, the author creates a sense of unease that feels (to me) very similar to the heart-pumping action scenes in films like Mad Max: Fury Road. That feeling of being on the edge of your seat is extremely hard to pull off in a book. Not only can a film use big visual effects to up the intensity, it can also blast you with a soundtrack that raises your heartbeat with its tempo. It takes skill to build tension using only words, even more so without action sequences. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August builds its tension in the conversations people have and in subtle observations. This is something I applaud.
Harry August is a boring character, and that's ok
One thing I've noticed in negative reviews of this book is that Harry August as a character is pretty flat. Harry is deeply introspective and scholarly, and is in no way eccentric. You may find this book a dull read if you are expecting an extroverted socialite who's always the centre of attention. His first life, described almost off-handedly, is as boring as you can get. Boring childhood, boring time in the war, average jog, average wife, eventually dies in his 70s of skin cancer.
But for the story to work he needs to be boring. He needs to be unassuming and fly under the radar (for spoiler reasons I will not explore further). I find it refreshing to read a story from a character who isn't necessarily brave or bolshy, but still gets the job done. He's pretty matter of fact, and seems like an introvert. Although he has several wives throughout his lives, this book never hinges on romanticism. I can completely understand how that would put some people off, but to me it meant as a reader I could focus on the timey wimey stuff I really enjoy.
This book is for you if:
You loved book Slaughter-house Five.
You're a fan of science fiction and unique concepts.
You like historical fiction. The book is set heavily in the first half of the twentieth century.
You skip sex scenes in books. I'm not a prude, I just find them boring and corny.
This book might not be for you if:
Narrative-driven stories aren't your thing. Some people find this book slow. I wouldn't recommend this if you struggle to get into books like Insomnia or The Stand. This book starts slowly then builds up in the second half.
You like quirky characters. Harry August is many things, but quirky he is not.
You don't like books set in the past, even if it was only about 100 years ago.
TL;DR The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is like an electric stove, slow to heat up but keeps burning long after it's finished. Harry August, though not particularly interesting as a character, tells a story that's suspenseful and a joy to read. I highly recommend this book.