“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." - From Goodreads
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a historical sci-fi novel written by Claire North about a man who lives his life, dies, and is then reborn in the same body to live his life all over again: a literary extrapolation of Groundhog Day. In a sense, the story looks at time travel without actual time travel. It tries to ask how would it feel to be able and go back and forth but have to restart at the beginning. how does it feel to be seven again having already lived a lifetime.
If doomed-or blessed- depending on how you see the matter, to repeat one’s life over and over again would you try to kill Hitler; work to prevent the transatlantic slave trade; save the residents of Hiroshima or Nagasaki? But not interfering with history is one of the cardinal rules of the Cronus Club, the “secret society” that have set parameters to the actions of these select “Ouroborans” or Kalachakras, who for some unknown reason loop endlessly through time . Anyone who breaks the rules gets punished by the club to make sure the offense isn’t repeated in the next life. The system seems to work fine as Harry August and his fellow Kalachakras live their multiple lives until a little girl tells shows up during his eleventh life to let him know that a message being passed on from the future suggests that the world is ending — and in every succeeding timeline, the end happens earlier. Meanwhile, Cronus Cub members are being killed off by one of their own, and it’s up to Harry to stop the rogue kalachakra by any means necessary.
At its core The First Fifteen Lives is a solid sci-fi novel. Despite the complicated physics (with a side of handwaving), the discussion of mechanics and the discussions on the rigors of developing a new science, the story is grounded reality. It is the attention to detail which truly stands out throughout the story. North makes sure that we are given enough,, even the seemingly mundane, to truly be able to imagine Harry’s reality and this helps the reader truly contemplate the implications of such a life.
"I met Vincent in 1945. The war was won, but rationing still cast its pall over my dinner table. It is petty, I know, to still find oneself frustrated by how bland the food is for so much of my early life, or how long it takes for central heating to become ubiquitous."
As Harry tries to find something different in every lifetime, some sort of purpose or new mission he meets a variety of Kalachakras. Some have tried different careers every lifetime, others who have tried to be in service of the human race without disruption, while some have (predictably) resigned themselves to a life of decadence and hedonism seeing their cyclical nature as nothing more as an endless exploration in “fun”. We get a sneak peak into the range of ways that people deal with the boredom and limitless possibility that comes from getting to live over and over.
After all, one common theme remains no matter what time period: the world and its events ares cyclical in nature. Empires always fall, economies collapse, wars start, the world ends. Harry visits the Buddhas of Afghanistan before the Taliban destroys them, fights in World War II over and over again, spends time in Beijing on the eve of the Great Leap Forward, and witnesses the churn of history over and over, surrounded by people who never see it coming. So what gives meaning to existence then? What's the point of going on living, when nothing is permanent and everything is repetitive?
While those are answers that will vary from person to person, there were many elements of the story which felt like a metaphor for what it's like to be alive in the early 21st century. We are living longer, with access to seemingly limitless information, and we have (for the most part) exited the “survival mode”phase of worrying about starvation. So what now? What's the point of just living and living, in endless comfort and safety? North's "Ourobourans" almost symbolise the ultra-rich of our capitalist societies. They are, freer and more powerful than ordinary humans but still trapped in our world.
In a story that literary spans lifetimes, North’s award winning novel is an examination of free will versus destiny, all the while providing an exploration of friendship, the different ways we love, and all the complexities of existence.