Harry August has what we have all wished for at one time or another – a do-over. Harry dies and is instantly reborn into the same life. He’s born on New Year’s Eve 1918 with the same name, the same adoptive parents, and grows up in the same location. The only difference is that he remembers everything about his past life. His past lives.
In The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (pseudonym for Catherine Webb), Harry tells us the story of how he is born again and again, remembering everything. And since he remembers everything, he gets to fix all his missteps, while making a bunch of new ones. So even though Harry is born into the same life, each one of them is drastically different. In one he’s a doctor, then a scientist, then a journalist, and in one he studies law. He’s sometimes married, sometimes depressed, sometimes travels the world, and sometimes he does things that dramatically change the future.
But changing the future is not what they’re supposed to do. In Harry’s third life he meets the Cronus Club, a club for others like him, and their goal is to cause as little damage as they can. So no killing Hitler, no telling non-Cronus members the future, and do not help advance technology.
You can probably see where this is going. Some Cronus members do not follow these rules, and Harry gets mixed up in it, through multiple of his lives. In his fifteenth life, he’s still dealing with things that happened to him hundreds of years before.
I loved this “Groundhog Day”-kind of loop that Harry tell us about, particularly because he doesn’t give us a linear story. Harry jumps back and forth, from third life to seventh life, back to fourth life and up to twelfth. It reminds me of a real conversation, where one piece of a story relates to something that happened years ago and you just have to tell the old story before you finish the new one. A tangent. Harry goes back and forth through his story to tell us tangents from different lives that are all connected.
Maybe tangent isn’t the best word, because it’s not that he babbles. The story is tight and extremely well written, including the world building. We’ve seen the idea of rebirth before, but here North cleverly takes the idea of remembering past lives and using the knowledge to work with others to try to solve a mystery. It’s like time travel without the time travel. We also see the juxtaposition of how fabulous and devastatingly bleak it must be to live the same life again and again. A lot of questions about life and existence are raised with no clear answers.
And, of course, there is a great mystery. A Cronus Club member is changing history, but who? And where have all the Cronus Club members gone? Just because they are born again doesn’t mean you can’t get rid of them forever, which is another great piece to the world North has created.
If you want an introspective, inventive thriller with a sci-fi twist, you should check this one out.