No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, December 21, 2014

2014/42: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August -- Claire North

the Cronus Club … like the Illuminati without the glamour, or the Masons without the cufflinks, a self-perpetuating society spread across the ages for the infinite and the timeless.[loc. 619]

Harry August is born on New Year’s Day 1919, at a railway station. He grows to adulthood, enlists in WW2, contracts bone cancer, dies.

And … repeat.

Unlike Ursula in Life after Life, Harry remembers his previous lives: and unlike Life after Life, he is not alone. About one in every half-million children is born a kalachakra, an ‘ouroboran’, with the gift (or curse) of living the same span of life over and over, and the ability to remember previous lives. (The term ‘kalachakra’ comes from Buddhism, and refers to the wheel of time.)

The possibilities are immense, and North explores a good many of them: the increasing pace of technological advance as ambitious kalachakra use knowledge from earlier lives to shape their world; the ennui of the effectively immortal; the temptation to kill Hitler, or bomb New York (“you can do whatever you like so long as you don’t bugger it up for the next lot. So no nuking New York, please, or shooting Roosevelt, even if for experimental purposes. We just can’t handle the hassle.”[loc. 1143]). Each kalachakran’s point of origin – birthday – is fixed, but their lifespan overlaps with those of others. They devise a method of communicating up and down the time-stream: to talk to earlier generations, a child in, say, 1925 speaks to a dying man, then that man is reborn in 1850 and repeats the question to a different dying man … In this way a body of knowledge (and the single inviolate rule of ‘not buggering it up for the next lot’) is built up.

Turns out that someone down the line is buggering things up very thoroughly: the end of the world is nigh, and nigher with each life. Somebody is subtly altering the world in tiny increments: small technological advances with immense consequences. Kalachandrans are dying, or rather never being born. (Some are simply forced to forget previous lives, so may as well not be reborn for all the good it does them.) Victor Rankis, who is Harry’s closest friend (in some lives, at least), may hold the key to the mystery. He is certainly the most important person in many of Harry’s lives.

I liked The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August a great deal: the complexity of the world-building, the credibility of the alternate histories that come and go as the cycle repeats, the depth and emotion of Harry’s various relationships, the grandiose plots of the characters, the wry asides and observations. (“I wondered if Senator McCarthy would do so well in this new world, now the vivid flushes of his skin could be seen in such glorious technicolour. Black and white, I concluded, lent a certain dignity to proceedings that the proceedings themselves probably lacked.”[loc. 4317]). I especially liked that – despite what Amazon’s categorisation engine (which puts this as #1 in ‘Romance > Time Travel’) might think – this is not a romance in any traditional sense. There are romantic elements, but they are not the focus of the story.

Claire North also writes as Kate Griffin, author of the Matthew Swift novels. [source] I’ve bounced off the first Matthew Swift novel before, but am now tempted to give it another go.

“the past is the past. You are alive today. That is all that matters. You must remember, because it is who you are, but as it is who you are, you must never, ever regret. To regret your past is to regret your soul.”[loc. 2447]

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