The subjects of immortality and reincarnation have been addressed in literature many times and in many ways, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the two so well blended together in a novel as they are in Claire North’s debut novel, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. Posing questions of ethics and morality, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August manages to be serious and hilarious, lighthearted and earnest, thought-provoking, and above all, engaging. It can be a difficult premise for a reader to wrap his or her head around, but North’s narrative deftly walks the reader through Harry’s lives, in no particular order.
What if when you died, you were reborn but were fated to live the same life over and over? That is just what Harry August faces, life after life. Luckily, Harry learns that he’s not alone. When the mysterious Cronus Club finds him, they are able to help him understand what he is but how he uses the information and resources they leave open to him is entirely up to Harry. After a few lives, Harry receives a message, passed down from later generations of his kind for the Cronus Club and its members: the world is ending faster than it should. Help. It doesn’t take long for Harry to determine who it is that is changing the future, but changing it back is something that will take many lifetimes to accomplish, if he choses to act at all.
Many of the moral dilemmas Harry faces are familiar to readers with any knowledge of time travel in pop culture. Whether you’ve only seen the Back to the Future movies once or are a hardcore fan of Doctor Who, you’ll know enough about how a single significant act can ripple through time with disastrous consequences. But what about the temptation to play and experiment when you know you can try something else the next time around? And what about punishing people for crimes committed in lives gone by, lives they haven’t lived yet? Where do morality and obligation truly lie?
While I loved the overarching plot of the novel, many of my favorite parts were tangential and character driven. The others with the same condition as Harry, known as kalachakra or ouroborans, create quite the cast of characters. In various stages of their long lives, they embrace or cope with what they are in remarkably different ways, all of which make sense psychologically. My absolute favorite moment of the novel is a passing moment of little consequence to Harry and the plot. It is simply an instance of recognition, understanding, and sympathy between two people whose conditions can leave them feeling remarkably alone so much of the time.
Another thing the novel does remarkably well is refrain from taking a definite stance on the issues of morality it raises. There is a general feeling in one direction, but Harry wavers throughout, struggling to reconcile his own desires with the question of what’s best for everyone, where should his loyalties lie and why. And again, while the novel’s conclusion seems to point in a certain direction, without the story of Harry August’s sixteenth life and beyond, there’s a playful ambiguity that leaves the final verdict on the morality and obligation unspoken.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North will be available starting tomorrow, April 8, 2014 (and I highly recommend it).