What’s It About
In 2013, Kate Atkinson published the very good, and critically acclaimed, Life After Life of which the sequel, A God in Ruins, has just been published. Life After Life follows the many lives and deaths of Ursula Todd. It was Groundhog Day, but where the character had no memory (other than a vague inkling) of their previous existence.
Claire North’s novel is exactly the same as the Atkinson. Well, when I say exactly the same what I mean is the same except for a number of significant differences the primary of which are:
- While we also follow the life and death of Harry August (fifteen times as per the title), Harry, unlike Ursula, but very much like Phil the weatherman, remembers each of his lives; and
- Unlike poor Phil, Harry isn’t trapped in a single day but has the freedom to experiment with the many and varied ways his life might have turned out.
Also, The First Fifteen Lives has a completely different plot to Life After Life. So there is that.
Living multiple lives, especially early on, isn’t all roses…
Naturally my reaction to being born again precisely where I had begun–in the women’s restroom of Berwick-upon-Tweed station, on New Year’s Day 1919, with all the memories of my life that had gone before, induced its own rather clichéd madness in me. As the full powers of my adult consciousness returned to my child’s body, I fell first into a confusion, then an agony, then a doubt, then a despair, than a screaming, then a shrieking, and finally, aged seven years old, I was committed to St Margot’s Asylum for Unfortunates, where I frankly believed myself to belong, and within six months of my confinement succeeded in throwing myself out of a window on the third floor.
Should I Read It?
It’s clear from the outset that North has carefully worked through what it would be like to re-live your life again and again and remember each iteration. The Cronus Club, a place where the Ouroborans (that’s what they call themselves) can meet, share stories and discuss messages from the future – imagine a 7-year old with the mind of an adult, relating the next 70 years of technological development because he/she has already experienced it – is a great invention that allows North to push and stretch the multiple lives concept.
If the novel has a flaw it’s that North needs to compress and summarise large chunks of Harry’s’ life if she (a) wants to develop the world-building and (b) tell a compelling story. As a consequence the novel’s pacing is at times hampered by the curse of the info dump.
That said, this is a fun novel with some genuinely insightful things to say about the burden of immortality (see below).
Maybe it’s my cynicism talking here, but I’m genuinely surprised when I come across a writer who can remake themselves in terms of tone and content. It’s more than just moving from adult to young adult, or from mimetic to genre fiction, or changing your name on the front cover of the book. It’s about a clear alteration in the writer’s personality, delivering stories that are markedly different to their previous work, even if exists in the same genre.
And that’s precisely what Claire North has successfully pulled off here. Also known as Catherine Webb and Kate Griffin she has remodelled herself in such a way that I had no idea I was reading a book by the same writer who penned the first Matthew Swift novel, A Madness of Angels*. I was lukewarm about that book and would be reluctant to pick up another novel in that series or penned by Griffin, and yet I would certainly read more books by North (In fact I just purchased her second novel, Touch). And while I’m sure Catherine Webb would prefer that I enjoy all her work no matter the name on the cover, I’m still impressed – in the non patronising sort of way – by Webb’s ability to draw clear, bold lines between her different authorial personas.
As noted above, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is essentially a mix of Groundhog Day and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life** where a main character repeats their life again and again and again. But whereas Phil the weatherman remembers each iteration of the time loop – or chronic hysteresis for Doctor Who fans – and Ursula Todd experiences a number of different lives with only the vaguest hint that she’s done this before, Harry August not only re-lives his life, he remembers each spin around the block. And he’s not alone. As Harry discovers – after going insane during his second life – he’s part of a community of immortal beings – the Kalachakra or the Ouroborans – who have experienced this condition of immortality since Adam was a boy.
But if the underlying concept of Fifteen Lives seems a little old hat – because time loops and immortals and secret societies are not new to genre fiction – North injects a level of freshness to the whole thing by (a) carefully thinking through what it would mean to remember more than one life and (b) using the subsequent world building to develop the novel’s theme about change and the status quo. If I enjoyed this book it wasn’t because of all the timey wimey goodness – an aspect heightened by North’s non-linear approach to Harry’s story – but because I was grabbed by the notion that these immortals, with all their knowledge and all their power and all their influence are totally constrained by their need to keep the timeline exactly the way it is. Disruption of the timelines means that future Ouroborans may not be born – non existence being the only true way they can die – and for the Cronus Club this is the most terrible of sins.
The plot stems directly from this ideology of inaction. Harry comes across an ex-member of the Club, Vincent, who has decided that there must be more to life then living. Vincent uses the knowledge he gains from each iteration of his existence to create a quantum mirror, a tool that will allow him to understand the very building blocks of reality – “from which comprehension [of] the whole universe may unfold.” Or, as Harry puts it:
this… miraculous device, is nothing more and nothing less than a do-it-yourself deity. You want to build yourself a machine for omnipotence, Vincent? You want to make yourself God?”
While Vincent does control his fair share of underground bases, there’s a philosophical core to all this Bond villainy. In a debate – of which there are echoes throughout the novel – Vincent pushes Harry on the point of having all these lives, all these years and doing nothing with the power and knowledge that comes with it:
“We are not destroying the world, Harry,” [Vincent] chided wearily, “only a world. We are not scientific monsters, we are not madmen out of control. It is undeniable that we will affect the course of temporal events–we have no choice but to affect the course of temporal events–but it is only one world which may be changed. We live and we die, and all things return to how they were, and nothing we did before matters.”
“I disagree. We are changing people’s lives. It may not matter to us; it may be… irrelevant, in the grand scheme of things. But in the grand scheme of things there are billions of people in this century alone who believe it to be very relevant indeed, and though we may have more time than they do, they still have the greater mass. Our actions… matter. We have a responsibility to consider the small as well as the big, merely because that is what the whole world around us, a world of conscious, living beings, must exist upon. We are not gods, Vincent, and our knowledge does not grant us the authority to play the same. That’s not… not the point of us.”
The Cronus Club are stagnant!” he snarled. “They will never change, never consider developing because it threatens their comfort! They would suppress us in a shot, Harry, maybe even try to wipe us out. People like you and me, we are a threat to them, because we cannot be content with wine and sun and endless, pointless, questionless repetition!”
For Doctor Who fans – and frankly anyone who has read a time travel novel – there’s a familiarity to this debate. But often in these novel the hero is an agent of change.*** Not Harry. He’s an agent of the status quo, and I found this fascinating because it’s not often you’re asked to have sympathy for a hero who wants things to stay exactly the way they are. That’s assuming you accept that Harry is the bloke we’re meant to be cheering on. While Vincent is half mad, his argument that the Cronus Club just sits there, essentially playing the fiddle while Rome burns, is compelling. And it’s telling that members of the Cronus Club will voluntarily go through a procedure, called The Forgetting, where memory of their past lives is wiped. It’s unspoken, but the indications are that this inability to act, to never kill Hitler, to never stop Stalin, to never allow an atom bomb to fall on Hiroshima, creates a growing sense of unease until the guilt of doing nothing becomes too much.
So Harry might be the hero, and he might even save history from Vincent’s insane plan, but we still walk away with this feeling that Harry and the Cronus Club are not only selfish – putting their existence above that of humanity’s well being – but also, tragically, cursed with an immortality that they can’t bear to give up, but also can’t bear to live with.
Given how much I enjoyed the novel’s meatier aspects, and, as Paul Kincaid wonderfully puts it, the “complex, well-oiled plot, ingeniously constructed, compellingly written”, I still found that the novel suffered from a moderate case of the info-dump. Because North has set herself the task of relating Harry’s fifteen lives – even if it’s cherry picking the best bits – there are sections of the book where the plot comes to a screeching halt as Harry explains what he was doing during his fourth or sixth or eighth life. While I understand why these sizeable chunks of information feature in the novel, and while they’re not badly written (though structurally clunky), they do feel like the bits of broccoli you’re forced to eat before you can get to the good stuff.
But this is a minor issue, one that’s easily eclipsed by the book’s many strengths. A “well oiled” plot, a sympathetic and engaging protagonist and most of all a genuinely fascinating conversation about immortality and knowledge and power and inaction.
*And probably a bazillion other novels I don’t have the brain capacity to recall. (Paul Kincaid’s Strange Horizon review refers to Jo Walton’s My Real Children and Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days. Two novels I have not read).
** I made my thoughts on the novel known on this mind blowing episode of the Writer and the Critic podcast.
*** The Doctor is a perfect example of this. On the surface he acts to keep the Web of Time intact, and yet spends most of his lives fiddling with history (within certain unknowable parameters) and changing people’s lives.