Author: Claire North
Edition: Redhook Books/Orbit, Hardcover 2014
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is one of my favorite books. The author combines a unique time travel premise done well, a philosophy on the meaning of life and a phenomenal struggle of wits. If your book group is looking to branch out of the ordinary, and most of your readers can manage time travel books, this is a novel that offers plenty of discussion material rooted solidly in current issues.
Internet ResourcesHarry’s history spans the 20th century. As he tells it,
“I am Harry August, born New Year’s Day 1919. I am sixty-eight years old. I am eight hundred and ninety-nine. I have directly killed seventy-nine men, of whom fifty-three died in war of one kind or another, and indirectly murdered through my actions at least four hundred and seventy-one people who I know of. I have witnessed four suicides, one hundred and twelve arrests, three executions, one Forgetting. I have seen the Berlin Wall rise and fall, rise and fall, seen the twin towers collapse in flames and dust, talked with men who scrambled in the mud of the Somme, listened to talks of the Crimean War, heard whispers of the future, seen the tanks full into Tiananmen Square, walked the course of the Long March, tasted madness in Nuremberg, watched Kennedy die and seen the flash of nuclear fire bursting apart across the ocean.” page 360If you need a reminder of the major world events of the 20th century in which Harry finds himself immersed, an AP study guide is a good place to start. In this guide the section on technology is particularly helpful as a resource for the novel.
If you think that the parallel universes in The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August are all stuff of fiction, listen to this story on NPR in which a physicist explains why parallel universes may exist. Or read Professor’s Wiseman’s theory on parallel universes in the Huffington Post.
Claire North is actually Catherine Webb, who has written under three different names, her own as well as Claire North and Kate Griffin. In an online interview, she offers her rationale behind having the protagonist be male as well as her description of childhood memories and wondering how they might be different from the perspective of an adult— as Harry views his childhood.
Major CharactersHarry August: Born January 1, 1919, a mnemonic kalachakra
Patrick August: Adoptive father
Vincent Rankis or Vitali Karpenko: A mnemonic kalachakra attempting to build the quantum mirror to gain the answer to life
Christa: Kalachakra from the future who tells Harry the end of the world is getting faster
Rory Edmond Hulne: Harry’s biological father
Jenny: woman whom Harry marries in his fourth life
Charity Hazelmere: A kalachakra who gathers up kalachakra children to help them live their lives
Olga : Kalachakra gatekeeper of Leningrad Cronus Club
Akinleye: Kalachakra born in the mid-1920s. Spends her lives traveling, shopping, wining, dining, living on a yacht. She goes through the Forgetting and in her reborn lives helps young kalachakra
Richard Lisle: Linear mortal who murders prostitutes including Rosemary Dawsett. Richard kills Harry in 8th life. Harry pursues him in 9th life and kills Richard in each of his subsequent lives
Franklin Phearson: Tortures Harry to obtain Harry’s knowledge of the future
Virginia: Kalachakra who cares for the kalachakra during their childhoods. Saves Harry from Phearson and introduced him to the Cronus Club. Then under Vincent’s direction, murders kalachakra before they can be born
|1||First life, lives to be 70 years old|
|2||Commits suicide at 7 years old|
|3||Wanders in search of answers|
|4||Marries Jenny. Tortured by Phearson in psych ward for Harry’s knowledge of future; meets Virginia. Commits suicide to escape Phearson|
|5||Writes his father as an anonymous soldier, seeking counseling for the torture inflicted upon him by Phearson|
|6||As a physics professor meets Vincent for first time as his student|
|7||Professor, meets his former wife Jenny at a conference|
|8||Killed by Richard Lisle|
|9||Pursues Richard Lisle|
|11||Second cataclysm begins: book opens here|
|12||Heads out at age 6 to unravel mystery of world ending faster. Vincent tortures Harry for his point of origin. Harry poisons himself and Vincent attempts the Forgetting on Harry|
|13||Cronus Clubs have disappeared; Charity is not waiting for Harry. Harry tracks down Virginia and gives her Forgetting|
|14||Harry tracks down Vincent as Simon in the United States. Vincent marries Jenny. Harry dies at 68 and Vincent uses the Forgetting on him for the second time|
|15||Charity is waiting for Harry as a child. Harry grows up as an orphan adopted in Leeds. Vincent hires Harry as his personal secretary. The quantum mirror explodes and in hospital Vincent finally reveals his birth date and place to Harry|
PerspectiveThe unique model of time travel in this novel, continued rebirth to your own life, provides a fascinating perspective on childhood. Harry is able to view his childhood through the lens of an adult even as he is living it. The author comments on this in an online interview:
As for seeing our families anew… certainly as I've grown up, I've begun to see my family in a different way, but my memories of my parents when I was a child were made when I was a child, if that makes any sense. As a seven year old, I perceived as a seven year old, and made memories as a seven year old, and any reinterpretations I have now are massively subject to my own partialities and the childish context in which those memories were formed. How much I missed, and how much I misunderstood as a child, I can only really guess at, and that badly. My memories would look very different indeed, I suspect, if I went back and made them again with an adult's mind.How do Harry’s memory of his childhood shape each consecutive childhood? When does he recognize the ironies, deceit and humor in the adult lives around him? How do you think your memories of your childhood would be different if, as the author says, you went back and made them again with an adult’s mind? The author also shares her need for Harry to be telling this story in the first person,
It's then – when the emotion he has spent so much time blocking himself away from, and the history he's spent so much time cataloguing as if it belonged to someone else – comes tumbling out, that Harry's at his most compelling. The fact that the entire story is told, by him, to force himself into doing something he doesn't want to do, is fairly indicative I think of the ongoing battle between what he dispassionately knows needs to be done, and what he emotionally wants to do instead.Where do you see this struggle Harry faces in the novel? Have you felt this same tug of emotion blocking you from your history and then when viewing your life dispassionately able to better assess your past? Time Time is as much a character in the book as the linear mortals and kalachakra. When Harry first meets Virginia and she explains about kalachakra, she warns him,
“Rule 1: ‘don’t bugger about with temporal events!’, page 100.The verbs we use with time are very descriptive of our relationship with time. Consider the difference in connotation between acting leisurely and wasting time or lingering and delaying. As Vincent says when he first starts discussion the multiverse with Harry,
“‘Complexity and simplicity,’ he replied. ‘Time was simple, is simple. We can divide it into simple parts, measure it, arrange dinner by it, drink whisky to its passage. … The most if ever seems we know how to do with time is to waste it.’’ page 72.In what ways is the luxury of time a detriment? In what ways can a minimum of time be a benefit?
Consider views of the ouroborans:
“‘Time has always been our problem in the Cronus Cubs. Always had so much; never learned to appreciate it.’” page 318
“It isn’t always easy for ouroborans to make bold decisions, spoilt as we are by the luxury of time, but this seemed too good an opportunity to miss, and the consequence of not acting on it too dangerous.” page 156How do you view the pauses in time? What phrases do you like using with respect to time? What phrases bother you?
When explaining about some of the difficulty in having such long memories, Virginia says to Harry,
“However, in my experience, time smooths all. One obtains a kind of neutrality after a while, a battering away at the edges as one begins to perceive through endless repetition that this slight was no such thing, or that love was merely a fancy.” page 113Do you think this is true for the karachakra? True for linear mortals? True for you?
Life ChoicesThe author uses a wonderful re-invention of the time travel device by having each kalachakra being reborn under precisely the same circumstances from life to life— all threads have the same starting point and then can take an infinite number of directions.
Consider Akinleye who lives her first lives partying and traveling and then after the Forgetting, her lives are focused on caring for young and new kalachakra. In both cases she began from precisely the same moment of birth. When Harry meets her again in her new lives, he muses that she was right to chose to forget:
“I looked over at her, young and bright and full of hope, and recalled the old Akinleye dying alone, laughing as a maid danced out into the waters off the bay of Hong Kong. ‘Yes,’ I said at last. ‘I think you were.’” page 303What was the thread the led to Akinleye following such a different path, even having no memory of her prior lives? How much do you think life outcomes are influences by birth location and how much by individual life choices?
As the author adds at the end of the novel:
“if you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice from a life already live, what would it be?”
Impact of Our ChoicesIn a conversation between Harry and the kalachakra soldier Fidel, Fidel muses on the lack of wide-ranging impact ‘insignificant’ events can have on time.
“‘Do you think you’ve ever made a difference to the course of linear events?’ I enquired. ‘Have you, personally, ever affected the outcome of a war?’And yet, when Harry makes a very minor adjustment to some calculations for the quantum mirror, the final answer results in the destruction of the device:
'Fuck no!” He chuckled. We’re just fucking soldiers. We kill some guys, they kill l our guys, we kill their guys back - none of i fucking means anything, you know?’” page 217
“I moved the point on the very first page so that my the time the calculations had been worked through, the final answer was nine orders of magnitude out.” page 390.Why is killing Richard Lisle so important to Harry? As Akinleye says,
“But prostitutes are murdered all the time! Report Ted Bundy, track down Manson, find the Zodiac— why do you have to waste your time on this one man? Jesus, Harry, is this your idea of making a difference?” page 162Does it matter that Harry murders Richard in every life after he first meets him? Where on the spectrum of temporal impact do you find yourself? Does every event, no matter how minor, irrevocably change the future? Do most events add up to more or less the same outcome?
“The world is ending. The message has come down from child to adult, child to adult, passed back down the generations from a thousand years forward in time. The world is ending and we cannot prevent it. So now it’s up to you.” page 116This starts the novel. How would this sit with you if you received this message?
Parallel UniversesThe book hinges on the concept of parallel universes. To help the reader understand, Vincent introduces the concept as a student to Harry as a professor.
“Three: at the very instant he makes the decision to send himself the numbers, a parallel universe is created. In his universe, his linear timeline, he returns home having not won anything at Newmarket in his life, while in a parallel universe his younger self is rather surprised to discover that he's a millionaire and carries on quite happily thank you.” page 70If you think that the parallel universes in The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August are all stuff of fiction, listen to this story on NPR in which a physicist explains why parallel universes may exist.
Or read Professor’s Wiseman’s theory on parallel universes in the Huffington Post.
What do you think of the concept of parallel universes? Intriguing? Horrifying? Incomprehensible? Exciting?
Secrets and RegretWhile working in the Golan Heights, a farmer’s wife comes up to Harry and says he needs to let go of what he carries inside him; this is after Akinleye’s death.
“‘the past is the past. You are alive today That is all that matters. You must remember, because it is who you are, but as it is who you are, you must never, ever regret. To regret your past is to regret your soul.” page 180How does that quote resonate with you? Do you think Harry’s past is like the past for a linear?
Sometimes the need to share a regret or a secret with a stranger is very strong.
“private Harry Brookes poured his heart out to a distant stranger who made no reply, but I knew that what I needed was not so much the comfort of return , but to speak of what I had been. The telling was all, the reply merely a courtesy.” page 89Have you ever felt like Harry, that the telling was all?
MemoryMemory plays a significant role in the novel. In particular, the Forgetting is unique to kalachakra. In some ways it is to be feared and in some ways it allows a do-over. Harry tells Akinleye before her Forgetting that,
“A death of the mind, for us, exceeds a death of the body. There would be pain. There would be fear.” Page 262Virginia offers this perspective of memory to Harry,
“The mind struggles to re-create the job of a first kiss, but somehow manages to recall the terror of pain, the flush of humiliation and the burden of guild with a startling clarity.” page 109How is memory employed in the novel to benefit and to detriment? When do you wish you had clarity of memory and when have you been thankful for the veil that time draws across our memories?
ChildhoodBeing reborn for a kalachakra can bring tedium, as Harry muses in considering his escape from Pietrok-112 which he knows is likely to be a suicide mission,
“I was prepared to go through with it as long as the information acquired appeared to outweigh the boredom death induced” page 174For us linears, who may fondly remember their youth and want to be young again, how does this resonate? Do you think returning to childhood would be tedious? Would it be more tedious if you remembered all you had learned as an adult?
HistoryAs with the perspective on individual lives and childhoods, the perspective of the arc of history changes in reliving it. As Olga, the Leningrad Cronus Club gatekeeper, shares,
“‘Course now,’ she grumbled, ‘I can see their point of view. Takes having lived through the revolution to notice just how hungry the peasants are, and how angry the workers get then they run out of bread, but at the time, when they pulled the blindfold over my blood-soaked face, I knew I was right. The course of history!” page 151Or from a different angle, reliving makes the history itself hold less gravitas, as Virginia states,
“We have the privilege of seeing the present through the wisdom of the past, and frankly such an honor makes it very hard to take anything too seriously at all.” page 113The daily news we live or read about may appear vastly different when documented by historians of the future. Think back to a time period you lived and think about how it is now presented as historical. Where do the two align and where do they diverge? How does the perspective of time alter the connections between ‘facts’?
Living as a KalachakraHarry meets many kalachakra with a range of approaches to being able to live multiple lives. From Fidel, who always follows the route of a soldier, to Akinleye, who lives the live of a hedonist to Virginia who cares for other kalachakra, to Harry who tries different professions in each of his lives, each kalachakra takes a unique approach to the ability to be reborn.
In Akinleye’s first lives she tells Harry:
“Then why get involved? For Christ’s sake, just sit back and enjoy yourself.” page 162Get involved or enjoy yourself; what kind of lives would you chose as a kalachakra?
Harry surreptitiously turns to his biological father as a soldier in a form of counseling after being tortured by Phearson. In the letter he receives, his father’s life as a solider is in many ways parallel to Harry’s as a kalachakra:
“Ours is the fellowship of strangers who know a secret that we cannot express. We are both of us broken, shattered, hollow and alone,” page 90What would it be like to relive the same century and hear glimpses of the future but never get there? Would you chose the life of a kalachakra given the chance?