Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

The extraordinary journey of one unforgettable character - a story of friendship and betrayal, loyalty and redemption, love and loneliness and the inevitable march of time.

Harry August is on his deathbed. Again.

No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.

Until now.

As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. 'I nearly missed you, Doctor August,' she says. 'I need to send a message.'

This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow

Goodreads description

Last year I reviewed the critically acclaimed and Booker short-listed Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – a novel in which the central character dies and then restarts their life repeatedly. Now along comes another book that is based on the same idea. What must Claire North and her publishers have thought when Kate Atkinson beat them to it? Or maybe Claire North is Kate Atkinson, having another take on the subject, which seems only appropriate in the circumstances. I am sure many writers would like to revisit a concept as strong as this. I can speculate like this because Claire North is a pseudonym for an acclaimed British author, or so the the note at the back of the book tells me. Whoever Claire North is, she has a very different approach to the concept.

Atkinson's novel is clearly literary fiction and the repeated lives are presented as a literary device. Claire North's novel is genre fiction – science fiction. There is a whole group of people who repeat their lives and even a secret society through which they help each other and protect the world from one of their kind abusing their knowledge. Of course the plot line concerns a message from the future that the world's end is being speeded up by a rogue xxxx. The book becomes a quest across Harry's fifteen lives to save the world. And a thoroughly good romp it is too, well plotted and with a strongly drawn and by no means perfect protagonist.

Whilst the heroine of Life After Life only vaguely remembers her previous lives, Harry August remembers everything. The advantage of this is that it allows Harry and us to consider the philosophical and logistical implications of the device. At times this debate can get a bit tedious, but it is thought-provoking. I'm not sure that I was entirely convinced by how the impact of alternative lives on world history was explained. But you have to accept the internal logic of such stories and get on with enjoying the action.

I read somewhere that science fiction cannot be magic realism and in this case I think that is probably true. Nevertheless I enjoyed this book.

I received this review from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.

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