Review published on September 25, 2014. Reviewed by Kirsty Hewitt
Nudge Reviewer Rating:
The message at the heart of Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is this: ‘some stories cannot be told in just one lifetime’. The novel has been incredibly well received since its publication earlier this year, and it has been selected as part of the BBC Radio 2 Book Club.
The protagonist of North’s novel is, unsurprisingly, a man named Harry August. The aim for the author is to show the way in which Harry ‘tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow’, thus creating an interesting alternative history of sorts. Each time Harry dies, North tells us, he returns to his childhood, ‘with all the knowledge of a life lived a dozen times before’. His life – and deaths – have all been dark, and ‘none peaceful’.
We first meet Harry in the following manner: ‘The second cataclysm began in my eleventh life, in 1996. I was dying my usual death, slipping away in a warm morphine haze, which she interrupted like an ice cube down my spine’. At this point in time, Harry is seventy eight, and the girl of whom he speaks is seven. This element of the story, for me, provides a definite echo of Audrey Niffenegger’s stunning The Time Traveller’s Wife.
The novel’s introduction draws the reader into Harry’s story immediately: ‘I am writing this for you. / My enemy. / My friend. / You know, already, you must know. / You have lost.’ The structure which North has used, and the way in which she writes, provides a great way of spanning important historic events – for example, Harry tells us, ‘I am of a good age to be enlisted at the outbreak of the Second World War… In my first life I enlisted of my own volition, genuinely believing the three great fallacies of the time – that the war would be brief, that the war would be patriotic and that the war would advance me in my skills’. It also allows North to create a highly complex being as her protagonist.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is engaging from the outset. Its plot is cleverly thought out, and there are certainly some unpredictable moments within it. North is a gifted author, who has created here a creative, striking and eminently memorable novel.