The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
By Claire North
Death and rebirth have been subjects that have interested people for as far back as we can remember; Religions around the world are based on them. Claire North explores these themes in her novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.
I was drawn to this book because I thought it was going to be about a man who is born, lives, dies then is reborn into another body in another year. However, it is about a man who is born New Year’s Eve 1918 and is reborn, after every death, on exactly the same day and in exactly the same circumstances. The thing that differs is his knowledge. In each new life, at around school age, he remembers the previous life and therefore uses this acquired information in a variety of ways to suit his needs. Some of his choices have better outcomes than others and occasionally he is forced to take his own life. Each new life is an ongoing adventure for Harry.
The book begins with a very short chapter comprising of an unusual conversation between Harry at seventy eight on his death bed and a seven year old girl. In an adult tone she relays an important message to and through Harry: The world is ending.
Apart from the obvious and his intelligence (most of which is gained from his memory of previous lives), Harry is an unremarkable guy living in unremarkable circumstances. He has family issues like the rest of us and, in general, doesn’t seem like the most interesting man although he does seem to have a dark sense of humour. The catalyst for Harry to step out of his rather boring life is his visit from this young girl. This provides him with a purpose and allows us to see what type of person he really is when pushed to the extreme.
Claire writes with great detail and fluidity. She seems to have done her research as the book is filled with references about World War 1, Russia and science, to name but a few. She’s created character well, showing us how people are through their actions.
‘… a Mrs Mason, a cheerful, rose-faced woman who could crack a chicken’s neck between thumb and forefinger and who didn’t believe in this new-fangled NHS business, not when there were gooseberries in the garden and rosehip cordial in the kitchen cupboard.’ (P197)
The story jumps between lives but does have structure so it’s not too confusing. What is interesting, apart from the main story line, is how Harry behaves in each of his lives. How he changes some of the things he does or how he doggedly sticks to some actions. It’s intriguing to the reader to not only see what it could be like to be reborn but to examine fate and question if we can really change the events of our lives if we choose or had chosen an alternate path.
This book was definitely worth a read. And with clearly an intelligent and talented author, I will be keeping a look out for her other novel Touch.