Book Review: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

There has bThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry Augusteen 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.

Really enjoyable.


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Book Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

I bought this book after it came up as a recommendation on Amazon. Having not long finished Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, the blurb and reviews (which linked it to Atkinson’s work and The Time Traveller’s Wife, which I also loved) sealed the deal for me. I’d never heard of the author, Andrew Sean Greer, but after reading Greta Wells story, I will be seThe Impossible Lives of Greta Wellseking out his other novels… But for the moment, I want to savour this one.

This is a simply lovely, haunting book that tells the story of Greta Wells, a young woman in New York in 1985 whose beloved twin brother, Felix, is dying of the scourge of the 1980s on, AIDS. Tha
t is never articulated, but it is evident. Greta lives with her doctor partner, Nathan, and her eccentric aunt, Rita, lives downstairs. Grieving for her brother, she

is sent to a specialist who recommends she has ECT and so she does and the impossible happens – Greta is flung into not one other version of her life, but two – 1919 and 1941.

In these two other periods, the dead come back to life, possibilities are within reach and tragedy can yet unfold. Segueing between three lives (she returns to the novel’s present as well) and maintaining awareness of all three, Greta learns that perhaps she can become the woman she always thought she could be… Only, she discovers, who you are is also contingent on the time you’re born in and the choices available to you and though Greta understands the choices she and her other selves should make, never mind her brother and other characters, life isn’t that simple…especially not when a war has just concluded, another is unresolved and where a plague strikes down those you love.

I can see why this book has been compared to Atkinson and TTTW, it shares some of the tropes and themes but, Greer himself uses Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy and Neverland as analogies and there is a sense in which these are far more apt. There is something both mythical and magical (as well as tragic and triumphant) about Greta’s lives. She is like Alice down the rabbit hole or consuming food and drink that alters her perspective. She is Dorothy, whisked away from certainty and the known to the unfamiliar and dangerously marvellous. While she time travels and thus carries with her knowledge and awareness of the future that can be earth-shattering and life changing in the macrocosmic sense, this story isn’t concerned with that. On the contrary, Greta cares only for the way larger issues (war, sexuality, disease, prejudice, ethnicity,love, fidelity, truth) impacts upon those she loves and her immediate lives – the microcosmic – and, in that sense, there is a veracity to this book despite its fantastical premise and the massive suspension of disbelief the author requires of the reader. It is one we happily make because the characters and their story – which is personal, yes, but also ripples outwards to envelop us all – are worth investing in and their concerns are that which we all ponder and try to realize in varying degrees.

Written in lilting, lovely prose, the philosophical musings of Greta touch on eternal questions of love and life and purpose. What do we deserve? Are we all entitled to happiness? Is context everything? Can we alter these things and should we even if we can?

This is a book that lingers in the heart and soul long after you put it down. So glad I read it and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a damn fine and meaningful read. I didn’t want it to finish.

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