Saturday, March 20, 2021

Review The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Gimmick” (noun): a trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or trade. Such is the thought sparking in my mind reading the back cover of Claire North’s 2014 novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. Could be an interesting gimmick unpacked to character and plot effect, could be a gimmick that is beaten like a dead horse with little else to support it … Which side bore out?

Groundhog’s Day but for a lifetime, Harry August bears the burden of reliving his life from the beginning every time he dies. Also burdened with a perfect memory, each time he is reborn he carries with him the memories of his previous lives. While initially finding his own way through multiple lives, often tragically, August eventually meets up with others similarly burdened. And while there is a chrono community intended to help and foster such people, there are certainly others interested in using their condition for more nefarious ends. And above it all, a threat looms that the youngsters are reporting back as: The End of the World <sound the doom>.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a conflicting novel. North’s style is dynamic and engaging; it balances fun and seriousness, and it often possesses the tasty wordplay I look to several other British authors for. All in all, a good mix. But there are also numerous occasions where, in an effort to couch an idea or help the reader suspend their disbelief as to the Groundhog’s Day concept, that rationally empty reasons are pushed on the reader. There is one scene, for example, where a 6-year old August visits a very elderly man in the hospital with the same condition. North frames this meeting with the idea that their meeting is unnatural, and therefore in need of explaining, which leads to the question: Why is it unnatural? I didn’t find the idea of a boy visiting a man in hospital too odd. Secondly, the reasons dredged up to convince the reader the meeting is natural sing false, clearly a forced rather than organic logic. And this is not the only case. This semi-repetitive lack of sense doesn’t allow the reader to build confidence in the narrative, which means the wonderful diction is the true forward pull.

Not helping any of this is the minimal plot motivation for the first third/half of the novel. North simply explores the idea of immortality through her construct, baiting the reader onward with additional tidbits of the world but with no real plot motivation beyond a vague end-of-the-world reference <sound the doom>. It works—but just enough.

So is The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August a gimmick? Mostly yes, sometimes no. North floats between the two poles, picking and choosing her moments to elucidate the human impact of such a condition, while at others, the worldbuilding takes center stage as she attempts to imagine the effects on history, society, etc.—the end of world scenario the nail in the navel-gazing coffin <sound the doom>. The sum not greater than the parts, the result is middling. Another way of putting this is, neither pole ends up convincing the reader of North’s intentions. Is this the fun, entertaining exploration of an alternate reality, or, is this a character study highlighting the need (or lack thereof) for mortality? Difficult to pinpoint… Thus if you’re interested, be aware you get a mix of both but not a concentration of either. And that might be just what you are looking for.

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