What I thought of… The first fifteen lives of Harry August #book #review

Every now and then a book comes along which, when you’ve finished reading it, you’re pretty sure is not only the best book you’ve ever read, but is likely to remain that way for the rest of your life.

That’s how I felt when I read THE TIME TRAVELLERS WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger; I couldn’t see how anything could possibly beat it.

Then something did.

A friend bought me JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORREL, and by the time I finished it, it had squeezed itself into the number one slot. I couldn’t look at THE TIME TRAVELLERS WIFE on my bookcase without feeling terribly guilty.

(Incidentally, let’s not confuse the novel THE TIME TRAVELLERS WIFE with the movie adaptation which was a steaming pile of horse poo.)

I held JS&MN aloft for many years, creating a shrine for it surrounded by candles in a dedicated room in my basement. No small feat considering that I live in a first floor flat.

Then one day I discovered Miss Niffenegger had written another novel. And a few weeks later I became convinced that nothing, NOTHING, could ever be better than HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY. Audrey once again occupied my top slot. How could I have ever doubted her.

Until recently.

A couple of months back I finished THE FIRST FIFTEEN LIVES OF HARRY AUGUST by Claire North. For the second time. And Oh My God!

Chapter one is your standard ‘something very strange is happening – how on earth did we get to this point!?’ malarkey.

Chapter two (which is when the story really starts) begins with Harry August describing his illegitimate birth – and death of his mother – in a public toilet, on a railway station platform, in the dead of night, in 1919.

I’m not going to lie to you. This second chapter is hard going. I could have easily put the book down at this point. I’m so glad I didn’t.

Then in chapter three Harry grows up, Harry gets old, Harry dies. And then Harry gets reborn. In a public toilet, on a railway station platform, in the dead of night, in 1919.

And so begins the story of a man who soon discovers he is a kalachakra; a person destined to live the same life over and over and over again, but able to retain the knowledge of their previous lives.

Just like THE TIME TRAVELLERS WIFE much of the book explores what it might be like to live with such an extraordinary gift. Is it even a gift!? Is it… a curse? How would you cope knowing that for you there is no heaven, no hell… no end?! That you’re essentially immortal, but only within the same 70 years of human history. Like 25,567 Ground Hog days laid out end to end.

And what if – after your third or fourth life – you suddenly discover you’re not the only one?

This is one of those rare books where I got to the end, and immediately started reading again – right from the start. I’m glad I did too; some of the plot was easier to understand the second time through. Much like life, one imagines.

And when I finished the book, that second time, I was bereft. Because I knew – in my heart of hearts – that no other book will ever be as good, and that I will never again have any need to go into my basement.

Although… it has been a while since I had a look to see whether Audrey’s written anything new…

Got a book suggestion for me – why not pop it in the comments below. If you’re reading this in an email, click here.

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