Monday, October 22, 2018

“The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” by Claire North

British author Claire North has something of a knack for writing science fiction novels that read like literary fiction.

She’s published five novels since 2014 and a trio of related novellas. That is, that’s the number she’s published using the pen name of Claire North. Her real name is Catherine Webb, and she published eight novels under than name from 2012 to 2010. Using another pen name, Kate Griffin, she published six novels from 2009 to 2013. 

That’s 19 novels and three novellas from 2002 to 2018, published under three names. It’s almost as if she’s a character in one of her stories.

One of her best known works is The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, published in 2014. The title alone is intriguing. The story is exactly that – what happens to Harry August, born shortly after World War I in a train station bathroom, his mother a servant girl who was the victim of rape and his father a war veteran and the heir of the manor where the servant girl was employed. Harry will be raised by the manor gamekeeper and his wife. Harry lives until late in the 20thcentury, dying of multiple myeloma. 

Harry will be born of the same parents 15 times. And each life will be different. Harry is a Kalachakra, which is actually a real term – a Buddhist term for time cycles. In this story, the Kalachakra are a tiny number of people who are born numerous times, usually forgetting their previous lives after a few rounds. Harry is one of an even smaller number of Kalachakra; he’s a mnemonic and remembers everything, usually be the age of six. 

The Kalachakra has a place to gather – the Cronus Club, with no headquarters but premises in every major city. Their locations change; members come and go, die and are reborn. It takes Harry two or three lives to understand and accept what happens. He also discovers he can alter his own circumstances by making different choices and anticipate and plan for what he knows will happen.

Claire North, aka Catherine Webb
Somewhere about the eight life in the 20thcentury, Harry begins to see things happening that shouldn’t. Certain inventions are happening a few years earlier than they should. Other Cronus lube members notice, too. And then some start dying and are not reborn. Someone, some Kalachakra, is playing the system. And Harry decides to find out whom, and put a stop to it before he and his remaining brethren (and sisters) are destroyed. 

Webb’s other works under the Claire North pseudonym are Touch (2015), The Sudden Appearance of Hope (2016), The End of the Day (2017), 84K (2018), and the three Gamehouse novellas (The SerpentThe Master, and The Thief). She works as a theater lighting designer and lives in London.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August ranges across history, philosophy, religion, World War II, Cold War politics, and 20thcentury technology. It has the added element of suspense, as Harry discovers, tracks, and gradually closes in on his quarry (it takes two or three lives to do that). And when it’s done, we’re left with a rather imaginative, creative, and dazzling read.

Top photograph by Martin Bjork via Unsplash. Used with permission.

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