Review: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book #38 for 2016
Old Firehouse Books Summer Bingo Square: A book with more than 400 pages

If you were to ask John le Carré to reboot Groundhog Day, you might wind up with something like this. I really love what North did with this particular twist on time travel and reincarnation, and it was thought-provoking in a way where many alternate history books fall short. It made me grapple with the meaning of “the end of the world” and why I should or should not care about it. Does my whimsical tinkering with the timeline of 19th-century technology mean that I share Vincent’s evil arrogance? Is it actually evil? On a more mundane level, am I diabolically arrogant for driving an old car with poor gas mileage, taking daily showers, running the heat and AC whenever I damn well please, and occasionally jetting off to some other country? (Um, probably so.)

I also thought the characters and their relationships were developed beautifully over Harry’s lives and the various Forgettings, whether real or feigned. It’s not a straightforward book at all, and there is a fair amount of rambling and digression, but everything seemed to matter to the telling of the story.

Where I had problems with the story was with the mechanics of multiple reincarnation loops. I wish now I had brought this up in the book club discussion, because maybe I am just being dense. But I can’t figure out how to sync up Harry’s lives with those of the other kalachakra without fixing Harry’s origin as some sort of reference point for all of the others’ lives. I am also not sure what to think of the Cronos Club’s policy of their kind playing around however they like as long as they leave certain major events and persons alone (e.g., no killing off Hitler’s mom). What precisely makes something or someone a Big Cosmic Deal? And how do we know that the world as we know it is the “right” one? North touches on the theoretical multiverse but never really examines it.

I have to say, though, that I really enjoyed this book and thought it went surprisingly quickly for its length. It does start out a bit slowly, but that may be because I was still making a determined effort to keep track of exactly what happened in which life as it was presented, and it turns out that paying attention to the broad strokes is usually quite sufficient for understanding what’s going on in the story. I must also admit that I spent a lot of time daydreaming about what I would do with a dozen or more lifetimes, and I suspect I am not terribly unlike Harry here.

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