Can you recall your first memory? It’s most often from around the age of 3, of being in a pram and noticing a butterfly or becoming aware of being involved in certain activities like a birthday party in your honour. Mine was a sudden realization that I had control over my decisions when I disengaged myself (briefly) from a group and watched them from a slight distance. But Harry August’s first memory isn’t like yours or mine. At least not after his first death and rebirth. For Harry lives his life on a constant cycle, going through the motions of birth, childhood, puberty and beyond over and over, spanning centuries. And he can remember each and every day of each and every life.
His first memory, therefore, on his second life in was a terrifying rush of clear and very real memories of a former life lived, resulting unsurprisingly in life-long admission to a mad house. His third is easier to deal with once he gets a grip on his lack of insanity and it goes on from there, his memories having the potential to have useful repercussions. It’s handy to have a couple of PhDs and a medical degree before you start primary school, whilst at the same time it can make the first 15 years of your many lives exceedingly tedious.
On his eleventh life a small girl visits him on his deathbed. She informs him that the world is ending and that he needs to pass the message on in his rapidly approaching next life. He is not surprised. He can take this warning, and the knowledge he has gleamed in his previous eleven lives with him to his twelfth, and roughly his 850th year on earth.
We learn early on that he may not be the only one of his kind while he is being interrogated in an institution during his third life, following the naive revelation to his wife that he has lived numerous times before. The man who is interviewing him, who has caught wind of Harry’s wild claims apparently through the grapevine of the psychiatric world bandies about the name of a probably non-existent, purely mythological, decidedly improbable outfit to test the waters, see if Harry is aware of the term. He is not, but his interest is piqued, particularly when a dramatically boisterous woman barges in, all but confirms the existence of this mysterious and very exclusive club and gives him the means to exit this life and enter the next one as easily as he can in locked ward.
And so he becomes a member of The Cronus Club, a highly secretive group of his kin with offshoots in every major city of the world. Designed to help its members, once a new one is entered into the fold he is whisked away by another when he is still a ‘child’ to bypass the process of pretending to grow up. They have various resources and of course wealth, and most choose to live their high-lives of choice, whether it be multiple degrees, philanthropy, world travel or all three.
Talk of a cataclysm in the 16th century by one of their own keen to change the course of history has made them all the more inclined to keep themselves to themselves and avoid rocking any grand, world-changing boats. So when after hundreds of thousands of years of comfort and riches the trickling down of messages from the future of worrying changes, technology advancing at a much faster rate than it should be, Cronus Club members going to their next life with no memory of any other, or not returning at all, they are wholly unprepared to protect themselves, or the regular ‘linear life’ people like you or I.
And so Harry comes in, with an inkling of who’s responsible and a responsibility to put things to right. What starts as a wander in to the lives of a man and the choices he is able to make and correct again and again turns into a gripping race against time to save humanity.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is an ambitious and wonderfully structured re-imagining of the time-travel hypothesis. Although the secondary characters are not always convincing and Harry is never as three-dimensional as one would like, despite having centuries to become a well-rounded character, it’s nevertheless a page-turning read. It begs the question of what you would do in the situation, what you could change, what other path you may have gone down, if you’d run into the same people, keep the same friends, career, life.
In some of Harry’s lives he is a physicist, a nice device for which to explain simply and succinctly the paradoxes of the ‘time-travel’ of the Kalachakra, as they call themselves, after a Sanskrit term used in a form of Buddhism meaning ‘time-wheel’. The complex mode of sending messages through time is ingeniously constructed and the terms used – Cronus was the father of Zeus and associated with Chronos, the personification of time – are as clever and thought-provoking as the subject matter itself.
The writing style, however, can be a little plodding, with over-use of certain words and unrealistic dialogue. This, in a funny way adds to the mystery, as the author is not who she says she is. Claire North is a pseudonym for an “acclaimed British author who has previously published several novels. This book is completely different from any of them”. It’s impossible to know to whom this work truly belongs to, but, as is probably to be expected in this current life of ours, the Internet is full of suggestions.
The subjects of playing God, advancing technology at a rate too fast to control, and how to manage your own time when you have an infinite amount of it are all undertaken with skill. If you could remember this life you’ve lived when next you are born would you be proud of the memories you take with you?
– Aoife B. Burke
First Published in The Tuam Herald on May 7th 2014