Title:The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Author: Claire North
Date Added: September 15, 2017
Date Started: August 23, 2018
Date Finished: September 21, 2018
Reading Duration: 29 days
Genre: Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Mystery, Drama, Philosophical
Some stories cannot be told in just one lifetime. Harry August is on his deathbed. Again. 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.
CW: Discussions of suicide, torture, and murder of sex workers.
We believed that we could change ourselves,
The past could be undone.
-Sarah McLachlan “Fallen”
When I was a child before any sort of indoctrination took hold, I believed dying was just a reset button, and I would start life over again right where I began. Upon realizing this was the premise of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, it was like having a religious experience that was less ironic and more absolute. I do not believe my child’s mind thought I’d retain all my prior life’s memories, but I am 100% certain I would suffer the same in my second life as the titular character and then spend the rest of them trying to do the impossible like Merida in Disney’s Brave and change fate. This is protagonist’s goal on a grander scale in Claire North’s brilliant debut novel.
Harry August is a kalachakra, a person for whom death and life are an infinite loop. At the cessation of the latter, they are reborn in the exact same place and time to relive their life anew with the knowledge that they’ve done all this before. “Kalachakra” was not a term made up by North; it is rather a Buddhist concept that means “wheel of time” (hi Robert Jordan) or “time cycles” with the latter term putting me in the mind of Chrono Trigger, specifically the song “Time Circuits.”
With more insights garnered from video games, I discovered the meaning of “kalachakra” from a video about Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, which is another narrative about time loops not only of the essence, but also necessary to forestall the end of the world.
Note: This is just a random aside, but at the same time I was reading this, I was also watching a let’s play of the game Oxenfree, which is yet another time loop narrative that could’ve used such to drastically change the past and therefore “fate.”
The novel’s parallels to Groundhog Day are obvious, as well as the more recent Netflix series Russian Doll with all three narratives showing the loop in degrees. Where GD reloops to the beginning of the titular day regardless, RD’s sequence ceases with the main character’s death going back to the night of her 36th birthday party, and Harry August happens at the end of the so-named’s life, whenever that occurs, going back to the very beginning. Similar concept; different stipulations.
Initially, I was confused on how the loop operated. The little girl who comes to the dying Dr. August’s bedside tells him she was passing the information from child to adult from a thousand years in the future, because the world was ending faster than expected, and a frantic game of “whisper down the ages” must be played. It is “a future he cannot allow,” much like the future horrors seen in late game Final Fantasy VII Remake, a story almost entirely predicated on defying the destiny laid out by the Whispers/Arbiters of Fate. While the entirely of the “new” story isn’t yet known, changing a dark destiny is a major part of it, which is the cornerstone of Hary August’s mission. It takes about halfway through North’s novel before we even know what’s (potentially) causing the catastrophe, and it only becomes more complicated once Harry discovers what it is and who is responsible.
Note: I didn’t want to go too deep into the machinations of FFVIIR here for various reasons, but mainly because I was going to claim something that is merely speculation insofar as there’s a character who appears to have an uncanny awareness of things such as what happened in the past as well as their own fate, as though they have indeed received messages from the past. There’s literally a scene where they comfort their child self, and though that’s more than likely just a vision, the symbolism being such is pretty strong. Anyway, the point I’m going for is comparaing narratives that use the motif of seeing an undesireable future and doing everything to defy it (I suppose I could’ve used the Rick and Morty episode “Edge of Tomorty: Rick Die Rickpeat” involving the death crystals as an example, too, both straightforward and inverse), as well as passing on messages from other loops. Kalachakra are doing the same in order to avoid a calamitous future. TNG episode “Cause and Effect” did the exact same thing with attempting to send messages to their selves in the next loop. So there are numerous examples of this paradigm sprinkled through sci-fi/fantasy.
Now in 1996 Harry lies dying, and my initial thought was he’d be reborn immediately after, so how could he pass the information “back?” I was missing a fundamental understanding of how the kalachakra work. They are reborn at the exact same time, in the exact same place, to the exact same people, in the exact same body every single time. Essentially, their consciousness travels back to re-inhabit the original body, but retains memories of the life lived before. Harry would remember the little girl and their conversation (once he reached the age of reason), and he could pass the message onto another older kalachakra who could then carry it even further back in time. It’s conceptually similar to the end of Final Fantasy VIII when *spoiler* the dying sorceress Ultimecia goes back to give her powers to Edea, *end spoiler* thereby passing it backwards (and causing a time paradox at that).
Harry’s first life was fairly normal for someone of that era. He fought in the second World War and had his first death (as shown in the beginning) in 1996 at the age of 78. In his second life, he was institutionalized due to the mental maelstrom of his first time experiencing the loop and eventually commits suicide at the age of seven. The uninitiated human mind is not made to bear such things, and most (if not all kalachakra) go through the same situation their second go round. Assisting fledging kalachakra is one of the functions of the Cronus Club, a society of experienced kalachakra. Once they get wind of a “new” traveler of the loop, they can intervene on their behalf. It is through them Harry learns the ins and outs, rules and suggestions, as well as the news about the end of the world. In his third or fourth life, Harry realizes how important the rules of the Cronus Club truly are.
If such messages could be passed back in time ad infinitum then historical tragedies like the Library of Alexandria could be prevented with the kalachakran fore knowledge that it would/had occured, but…the kalachakra who initiated the message would have to do so every life, and the message would have to be passed on and followed by each subsequent one each time as well, so that it would become a “fixed” point in history (which of course begs the question about the absolute nature of any so called “fixed” point). If the cycle was ever interrupted, the consequences would ripple through both linear and looped time, and the farther back in history you go, the more devastating the effects, which is the overarching point of the novel.
This idea is demonstrated by Harry’s “lifely” act of killing a Jack the Ripper type serial murderer of sex workers named Richard Lisle in a “kill one to save a thousand” combined with a Minority Report philosophy. Harry must do this every life in order to curtail the slaughter of innocents (and you’re goddamn right I called sex workers innocents in the same way other victims of violent crimes are don’t @ me). For every life he doesn’t stop him, Lisle goes on his killing spree, which means not only does Harry reset to the beginning at the end of his own life, but everything does as well. This brings up some interesting questions I have to put behind a spoiler tag.
*spoiler* In Harry’s 3rd or 4th life, he makes the grievous error of telling his wife what he is, and through a series of terrible events winds up in the power of man named Phearson who is not a kalachakra but knows about them and the Chronus Club. He tortures Harry for information until he (Harry) is finally able to contact the CC who send one of their members to provide the captive kalachakra with the means to kill himself. Harry is of course reborn under the same conditions as before. Phearson tortured crucial information out of Harry, so now a non-kalachakra knows about them. Of course when Harry dies, everything he’s done in the prior life resets except for the knowledge he’s garnered, (and Harry is also mnemonic, a rarity even among the kalachakra, which means he remembers literally everything). But this is the thing…Phearson is still alive in that timeline Harry died in unless such a timeline and the events in it cease to exist after a kalachakra died, which would be…even more complicated since there are other kalachakra. Of course when Harry is reborn, that incarnation of him never meets Phearson, knowing what he knows from the past life, but does the timeline than split? Is it like that shit in Loki? A variation where Phearson still has the information about the kalachakra that could affect that particular future but not the loop Harry is in so long as he has no other interactions with Phearson? Or is it as though the kalachakra exist within their own closed time loop, but they can affect those in other closed time loops (other kalachakra) and those on linear time line Venn diagrams shot through with lines?
This sounds like complete and utter word vomit, but I couldn’t help thinking it during that part. Maybe I should try to ask the author this on Goodreads. Anyway, back to the main review. *end spoiler*
Like in Doctor Who, there are set and unchangeable points both large and small. For example, both World Wars are inevitable for the former, and Harry’s adoptive mother dying of cancer claims the latter. To this point as well, Harry is always adopted by the same people, and she always dies. It might not be the same day or even the same year, but it is inevitable. Not to belabor Groundhog Day (which literally every time loop story is compared to even though it wasn’t the first piece of media to present such a paradigm; it still set the standard), but the fore mentioned is similar to the old man whom Bill Murray’s character first ignores and then tries to help. The end result is always the same.
The novel is set up in such a way so that not only does Chapter 50 begin at 50% completion, but the major catalyst for the plot events is also introduced. The book succeeds in the seemingly oxmoronic task of a simple premises with monumental implications; it is quite literally the most brilliant idea I have ever read, and the author does a fantastic job in exploring it. While it is a slow burn with a pacing that may be too lacking for some (which I discovered by scrolling through some of the reviews on Goodreads), it’s necessary in allow the implications and questions North raises to sink in. Is everyone reliving their lives, but only the kalachackra realize it? Or are people like Harry caught in a particular temporal loop where they go back but retain the memories?
Harry August expands upon the premise presented in Groundhog Day to encompass a lifetime instead of a day. It is also something experienced by more than just one individual, which presents another set of problems not limited to identifying another kalachakran without accidentally giving yourself away to a “linear mortal,” because the consequences of such (as exampled in the large spoiler tag) could be dire. It speaks to a subtlety that us socially anxious and/or awkward folks can connect with.
North’s novel functions almost as a commentary on how gods would view the world with the laissez-faire mien many kalachakrans approach linear mortality (especially since kalachakrans who interfere too much with linear time are brutally handled by the Chronus Club in a motif similar to the 4th Shrek movie). To be or become a god, you must be inhuman, in all facets of that word. Parodoxically, though, the plot of the novel hinges on the all-too-human thirst for knowledge of self and existence when neither philosophy nor theology offers any salient explanation, nor can I completely disagree with Harry’s eventual rival for wanting to seek this out. When you know what’s going to happen from one moment to the next, it comes off as a sort of world-weary wisdom adjacent or even full crossing over into nihilism. None of it matters. Linear mortals die all the time, and they are born again from their point of view (this is why I presented the question above of “Is everyone re-looping and only the kalachakrans are aware of it, or are the kalacharans themselves caught in a temporal loop?”). This is the philosophy adopted by Akinlye, another member of the Chronus Club, and Harry’s friend (in some lives lover) when he tells her about his Minority Report mission with Richard Lisle. It doesn’t matter in the scheme of things, because everything is just going to repeat.
Granted with the kalachakra they won’t remain dead for long, but the motivation (or lack thereof) is the same. Their universe is stuck on repeat, which is the same idea in macrocosm from Futurama’s “The Late Philip J. Frye.”
Harry takes the opposite approach to his friend though. Because he’s aware of the speck in the wind that could start a hurricane…all too cognizant in fact, and because as a kalachakra he’s seen all of this before, he knows there are changes he can make to his actions that might set off a cascade of effect. Since this is exactly how the story begins with knowledge passed backwards, it obviously functions as a major plot point that if used wrong could become disastrous.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is an absolute masterpiece that made me think more than any other story has in a long time. It was one of the best books I read in 2018 (yes, I’m this behind with my reviews…) and was edged out only by one other according to my Top Books of 2018 list. If I had the time and the energy, I could write a philosophical dissertation on the implications of this novel. The ending retains an air of ambiguity, which is more than appropriate for a story about beings who experience constant repeat and retrial. Time loop narratives are almost eerily inundating the current zeitgeist. Given the almost surreal nature of our current reality and the dreaded feel that we’re running out of time, such a saturation is not untoward.