Note: Thanks to NetGalley and Redhook, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, for giving me a preview of this excellent book.
Sometimes I think those individuals who write the blurbs/descriptions for books have a hard go of it. They have to offer just enough information to intrigue potential readers, without really ruining the surprises that make a book fun to read. Sometimes they fail miserably; sometimes they nail it perfectly on the head. The perfect blurb, to me, is mysterious. It makes you go, “What? Well now I have to read it!” Case in point:
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.
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.
I’ll pause while you go get your hands on this book because I know after that description, you want to immediately pick the book up and read it. Right?!? So good!
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North (a pseudonym for Catherine Webb), follows Harry, a kalachakra, a race that are reborn into the same body, place, and circumstances forever. Or until the end of the world, which is getting faster and faster, at least according to the messages passed through the generations to Harry. And being the good-hearted – albeit flawed – man Harry is, he resolves to save the world, no matter how many lives it takes him.
This book has the three things I think all books should have: A flawed protagonist that you can’t help but love, lyrical prose that effortlessly flows, and the sort of suspense that makes you think about a book even when you’re not reading it.
North’s prose, by the way, is perfect. Balanced and rhythmic, you flow down it like a river, going faster and slower as North deems appropriate. And yet, you never lose your place. Where time jumps are jarring in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, they seem perfectly natural for Harry. Even when Harry and another character start debating the intricacies of the multiverse and the ethics quandary all time travelers face, I never got lost. When I wasn’t reading it, I was picking it apart in my head, trying to figure out how the world would end, how Harry could possibly stop it, and who was behind the whole thing. Here’s one of my favorite passages:
“When I am optimistic, I choose to believe that every life I lead, every choice I make, has consequence. That I am not one Harry August but many, a mind flicking from parallel life to parallel life, and that when I die, the world carries on without me, altered by my deeds, marked by my presence.
Then I look at the deeds I have done and, perhaps more importantly considering my condition, the deeds I have not done, and the thought depresses me, and I reject the hypothesis as unsound.
What is the point of me?
Either to change a world – many, many worlds, each touched by the choices I make in my life, for every deed a consequence, and in every love and every sorrow, truth – or nothing at all.”
The book is sprinkled with passages like this, with Harry quite unsure of what his purpose in life is. I think that is the value of this book and why we can all love Harry. He is a flawed hero. He has what many might call a super power, and yet he still obsesses over the fundamental question that we all grapple with: What is the point of my life? Giving Harry 15 lives to work it all out – or not work it all out – gives us hope that we are not alone in our uncertainty. And what more could you ask of a protagonist?
I have to admit, I’ve never liked time travel narratives (Dr. Who is the exception). But North manages to turn the concept on its side, offering a truly unique narrative worth staying up all night reading (which I did). Add to that some engrossing prose and you have what is likely going to be my favorite book of 2014, even though it might be a little too soon to call.