Just about everybody I’ve spoken to about this book has loved it. Harry August had been on my to-be-read pile for quite some time and finally clawed his way to the top, when I went on holiday at the beginning of the month. I was very excited at the prospect of reading about his fifteen lives. So much so, I worried that my hyped-up expectations might spoil the book for me. Need I have worried?
The premise and structure of The First Fifteen Lives… are immaculate. The writing is superb. The time-travel aspects work wonderfully well, and are irresistibly mind-bending. This was a book I didn’t want to end, I loved reading every page. Until the end. Then I wished the book hadn’t finished like it had. This is where, I think, heightened expectations played a part. Such was the praise for the book, I expected a seamless perfect whole. The ending jarred. It certainly wasn’t what I envisaged and considering the painstaking construction of the rest of the book, it felt far too convenient. Almost as though the author had no idea how to dismount from the convoluted literary routine she had just performed. Would I have felt like this had I not been told be lots of people that the book was absolutely brilliant? Possibly not.
The premise is simple, yet stacks up to be complicated. Harry August repeats his life, over and over. Groundhog Life, if you will. At the moment of his death, he is reborn back where he started -on the toilet floor of a railway station in the North East of England. After each rebirth, he can remember what came before. The story is then told, in a more or less linear fashion, through Harry’s lives. The first fifteen on them. I say more or less linear, the story does jump backwards and forwards between Harry’s lives. This is a memoir, and Harry tells it in the order he feels best. Even so, the overriding direction of the narrative is from life 1 to life 15.
It turns out Harry is not alone. There are a number of ‘kalachakrans’ in the world; people who are reborn over and over. More uniquely Harry has perfect recall of every moment of every life he spends. So called mnemonics are far less common, even among the incredibly rare kalachakrans. Each of Harry’s lives are essentially parallel universes. Each life is mostly filled with ordinary people, who go about their ordinary lives. Harry’s fellow kalachakrans, however, can find and meet one another, and do so, across multiple existences. That’s where the mind-bending bit comes in. The myriad meetings and messages across lifetimes and timeframes started to hurt my brain if I thought too long about them.
Towards the end of one of his lives, Harry gets a message from the future. The world is ending. All worlds are ending and the arrival of the apocalypse is growing ever faster. A pretty compelling reason to find out what’s going on.
The layering of plot in this book is excellent. With multiple lives to play with, the novel’s heroes and villains have scope to play the long game. This in turn gives North a broad canvas on which to paint her story. She has afforded herself the opportunity to tell personal stories over a timescale normally reserved for the rise and fall of empires. This allows her to generate great depth of feeling for characters on both sides of the divide. It’s fair to say I’ve never read anything quite like it. On several occasions I had to put the book down to think through what had happened; how the multiple universes might interact. I wanted to work out how what was happening, and, in turn, what might happen. The mark of a great book.
Of course having invested so much brain-power and sheer pleasure into reading the first 350 pages of the book, it was always a risk that the denouement was going to disappoint. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, but it whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t what North delivered. I think the ending is fitting, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. So, having spent most of the time reading, thinking I would be telling everybody that The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is one of the best books I’ve ever read, I find myself wanting to say, ‘This is a truly remarkable book, but I wasn’t 100% convinced.’
But then who cares about what I think? – Without a shadow of doubt, you should read this book, take in its glory and decide for yourself.