The premise of Claire North’s dazzling novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (2014) is pretty simple. You’ve heard of the film Groundhog Day? This is Groundhog Life. But the execution of this premise is something else again: gripping, thought-provoking, and profoundly complex.
Harry August is an “ourobouran.” As soon as his life ends, it resets, sending him right back to the moment of his birth—but with a full memory of his previous lives. Harry’s story begins in northern England in 1919 and spans the twentieth century, over and over again. The specific details of his life change from one iteration to the next, and with each new life he gains more information about his plight, as well as connections with others who share his miraculous condition. But what doesn’t change is the greater arc of world history, which is doomed to repeat in an infinite loop…at least, so it seems, until the meddling of a fellow ourobouran threatens to change the course of repeated history forever, at great cost to the health of humanity and the planet in future cycles.
Told in an eloquent first-person voice, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a tour de force of fascinating history, science fiction, drama, and philosophy. North’s command of the nonlinear narrative is deft and intricate, toggling between Harry’s lives effortlessly in a manner that, in less sure hands, might have been disorienting. But the scattered parts do add up to a coherent whole as she first mines and explores history, then later subverts and alters it, all against a centuries-long canvas of repeated timelines. I think the early passages of the book are more compelling than the latter: the playful exploration of the idea, as Harry tweaks his skillset from life to life while uncovering the existence of a secret society of fellow travelers, is compulsively readable. The later, plottier rivalry between Harry and his friend-stroke-nemesis becomes darker and more philsophical. But all things considered, it’s a masterful novel, seamlessly blending small human struggles with grand skiffy ideas, personal journeys with time travel, alternate history, and eye-widening SF sense of wonder. Highly recommended.