What would you do if you could live your life over again, with the knowledge and experience you’ve gained in this one? That’s the question posed by Claire North in her Arthur C Clarke Award-nominated novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. Those known as kalachakra or ouroborans face an eternal Groundhog Day, born to the same parents and living through the same events over and over again.
But Harry August isn’t just fated to be reborn over and over again. He is a ‘mnemonic’, someone with perfect recall of everything he’s learned and experienced throughout all of his many lives. Over the first few he comes to terms with his existence, cycling through mental health problems, spirituality and science in a search for an explanation for his condition.
Harry connects with generations of other kalachakra through a loose, global organisation called the Cronus Club. Each chooses to spend their multiple existences in different ways, but all obeying the convention that no-one should seek to alter the course of history. But that comfortable existence changes for Harry when he learns that someone is changing the future and accelerating the end of the world. What follows is the story of Harry unravelling the mystery and saving the future.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August gives us a fascinating insight into how we grow and change and how our experiences shape us as individuals. That knowledge and experience cannot help but influence our actions and the approach we take to the issues in our lives. For the ourobourans, death and injury hold no fears (beyond the inconvenience of having to relive childhood and puberty), leading to a low appetite for risk and a potential longer term strategic view that eludes those of us consigned to a single life. Harry is content to spend several of his lives preventing the premature end of the world, far in the future. But for many, the endless cycle of repeated existence leads only to endless rounds of fruitless hedonism.
Where the novel excels for me is in the portrayal of Harry’s relationship with Vincent. The friendship between them is profound and fully-realised, despite the dark turn that it takes. There are no pantomime villains in this novel, just competing visions of what the role of individuals in society should be. Is our role to promote human development, or to live a good life helping others?
But that strong portrayal of male friendship comes at a price. Where the novel falls down for me is in its portrayal of women. They are largely absent, falling into the category of prizes/rewards (Harry’s wife Jenny), helpmeets/henchpeople (Virginia and Charity) or are used simply to illustrate the implications of the ultimately constrained life of the ourobouran (Akinleye). It’s a disappointment, given how well North’s more recent novel Touch deals with questions of gender and identity.
Goodreads rating: 4*