There has been a spate of books that deal with time travel and variations on the theme of the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day (Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – sublime – and The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer – delightful – as recent examples (see my reviews)), so I was excited to find another in this, for want of a better term, cross-over genre (literary fiction, history, science-fiction/fantasy) that I really enjoy. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry North tells the tale of a man called a kalachakra, someone who is born at the same point in time over and over but with all the knowledge of his previous lives in tact – or at least, they emerge very early in the person’s new life, meaning he or she is quite precocious and able to avoid the mistakes of the past life and build on their understanding of the present, past and future.
As the blurb says, when the novel opens, an 11-year-old girl appears to Harry as he is on his death bed, warning him that the world is coming to an end and he must act (in his next lives) to prevent this. What a fabulous premise. In fact, the entire idea is marvellous and North is at pains to underpin this speculative narrative with science and acceptable possibilities. In order to do this, North takes us back to the beginning of Harry’s lives and to and fros between different ones, the people he meets, his successes and failures when it comes to using his accumulated knowledge wisely, and also takes the reader on sometimes long tangents into other kalachakra’s lives. We also meet the elusive and mysterious Chronos Club and some of its members. And so, the reader is immersed in the lives of Harry North – sometimes, this is an unputdownable experience, but other times, the novel feels weighted by its own cleverness and need to offer explanations and back-stories to gratify the most curious. I wasn’t sure this was always necessary and sometimes dialogue and reflection suffered from a degree of pretentiousness and long-windedness. Having said that, other times it was utterly gripping.
Overall, this story of a reluctant time-traveller and the fate of the world is also about humanity. It’s very philosophical as it explores ideas around power and knowledge and the ethics that these invite and demand while managing to tell a great story of sacrifice, choices, where they take us and the consequences of these.