Reviewed by Harriet Devine.
“The world is ending,” she said. “The message has come from child to adult, child to adult, passed back down the generations from a thousand years forward in time. The world is ending and we cannot prevent it. So now its up to you.”
Harry August is on his deathbed, in his eleventh life, when he gets this message from a seven-year-old girl. Like him, she is a kalachakra, or ouroboran – someone who is reborn again and again in the same time and place, bringing with them all the knowledge they gained in their previous lives. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s easy to become very rich through the simple means of betting on horses you know will win, or investing in shares you know will go through the roof. It’s easy to become very successful in a dozen different careers, having everything you learned in your past lives at your disposal. One thing, though, is totally out of bounds – changing the course of history. To do that would be far too dangerous, in fact would be playing God, and kalachakras generally know this by instinct.
There are, of course, a few “linear” people who know that kalachakras exist and are desperate to profit from their foreknowledge. Harry encounters one of them in his fourth life, and is subjected to a terrible ordeal intended, though unsuccessfully, to prize the information out of him. But far more frightening and dangerous is another kalachakra, Vincent Rankis, who Harry meets at Cambridge. Vincent is brilliant and completely unscrupulous. He plans to use his knowledge not only to advance the scientific discoveries of the world but also to build something he calls a “quantum mirror”, a device which mimics God and which will undoubtedly bring the world to a rapid and untimely end. So it becomes Harry’s purpose to somehow stop this happening, something that can ultimately be done only by preventing Vincent from being reborn.
This is a remarkable novel. I knew almost nothing about it when I agreed to read and review it, and imagined it might be a bit like Kate Atkinson’s 2013 Life after Life, which I loved. In a very basic way, of course, it is, in that it’s based on the same premise, the idea that it’s possible to be reborn again and again into the same body and the same life. But there could hardly be two such different novels. This one, of course, could be loosely categorised as science fiction, a genre I have completely avoided since a brief love affair with it in my twenties. But if like me you are not a lover of the genre, that should not stop you from reading it. The issues it deals with, and the questions it raises, are enormous. Good and evil, truth and lies, the meaning of life and the nature of death all look very different when you know you are going to live the same life over and over again. As for relationships, especially with others of your own kind, they are endlessly modified and transmuted over the centuries by what has gone before.
Nowhere is this more true here than in the friendship between Harry and Victor, which can truly be described as a love-hate relationship. On one level they grow closer and closer throughout the many years they spend together in various lifetimes, but always Victor is attempting to use and control Harry and always Harry is evading being used and controlled, and endlessly deceiving Victor about the true extent of his knowledge. This is a real power struggle in every sense of the word, with Victor as the Faustian overreacher with no compunction about using forbidden knowledge to further his own ends, and Harry, essentially, as the force for good.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is quite a dark novel, and it wouldn’t be exactly true to say that I enjoyed it. But I became increasingly fascinated by it and in the end was racing through its 400-odd pages, desperate to see how things would work out. There’s plenty of excitement along the way, with elements that are reminiscent of the best spy fiction, as for example when Harry ends up working with Victor in a remote Soviet laboratory and has to escape through the wilds of uncharted Russia, and of detective fiction as he tries to anticipate and prevent murders he knows will take place without his intervention.
The novel’s dust jacket proclaims that ‘Claire North is a pseudonym for an acclaimed British author who has previously published several novels. This book is completely different from any of them’, but her identity is now an open secret. She is in fact Catherine Webb, who has published a number of YA novels under her own name (the first one written when she was 14), and a series of fantasy novels as Kate Griffin. I haven’t read any of them, but for someone who is only 28 that’s a pretty impressive record. She is undoubtedly a massively talented writer, and this is highly recommended.
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Claire North, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (Orbit, London: 2014). ISBN 978-0356502571, 416 pp., hardback.