The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North
Published: 28 August 2014
Storytellers the world over should be wary of making time travel the subject of their stories. Narratively speaking, it’s a minefield. Continuity is king today, a time when anal A Song of Ice and Fire fans delight in spotting—and telling everyone they’ve spotted—an error. And time travel is ripe for clumsy continuity. Consider the Terminator movies. One day, a movie will be required to show, or reference, John Connor (and then his wife) sending Arnold Schwarzenegger back in time for the second and third sequels.
Of course, time travel also offers a convenient means of solving such problems: making it never happen. X Men: Days of Futures Past uses it to erase the at least half a dozen continuity errors that riddle the original trilogy and first Wolverine spin-off, as do the Bill and Ted movies, albeit as a shot at the subject, when the protagonists solve a problem by simply saying they’ll travel back in time, when they get the chance, and put in place everything they need. Abracadabra, a key appears that they need to access a locked room. It’s this convenience that Claire North turns upside down in The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.
August’s whole life is Groundhog Day: he’s born, he lives, he dies and he is reborn, as himself, on the day he was originally born, with all of the memories from his previous life (and then lives from his third life onwards). With me? He is Kalachakra and must repeat his life again and again, presumably until the end of time. Death holds no fear for him, it is the being born again that’s the problem, because he must go through his early years as a grown man in a child’s body, with all of the memories of an adult and none of the rights or independence earned from growing up. Practically, this is a problem, as in his second life he is confused and certified insane because of what he remembers of his past life, tragically causing him to throw himself from a third-floor window before he reaches the age of 10. Luckily, and somewhat conveniently, as August acknowledges, he fatally lands on his head.
The repetitiveness also becomes a chore for August, because history largely unfolds in the same way every time, so even immortality loses its novelty eventually. The inconvenience of his eternity gives the reader glimpses of days gone by, even as August dismisses that decade’s headlines as proof that people will never change. Fiction such as Fifteen Lives, even told by a contemporary in the throes of literary creation, offers a telling history lesson when the author chooses to help readers escape into the past.
One inconvenience of the time travel device is its natural dislike of the linear narrative. Fifteen Lives is told in retrospect, with August somewhat haphazardly dipping in and out of lives when he sees fit. His scientific leanings have him quantifying often—at one point he counts off how many men he has killed directly or indirectly—and it is with these techniques that North accompanies the fixed points in time in which August focuses his story. Each life, as the novel’s title suggests, is numbered, so the reader remains vaguely aware of how many he has led and how close a conclusion is at that point in time.
Living as many lives as he does, August inevitably asks: would you change the future? The consequences of doing the impossible to do what is impossible are considered at great length as August counts off lives. The reader can appreciate where August is coming from when he approaches this subject, because with great power does come great responsibility, as Spidey’s doomed uncle loves telling us. The position that August takes, in the end, makes sense, although who he is writing to, and why, does create a cliff hanger from which there is very little escape. As endings go, it’s largely left up to the reader to decide August’s fate, which is yet another time travel joke that the reader and author share at August’s expense.