Time Travel Done Right: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustNovember 14, 2018
Sometimes, I hear about a good book because it’s popular — all the bookish accounts I follow on Instagram are posting about it, it’s on the New York Times Bestseller list, and I get an advanced reader copy in the mail. And sometimes nobody’s talking about a book, but I’m drawn to it anyway. When a book like that turns out to be incredible, it feels magical, like I’ve discovered a hidden treasure.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a book like that. I heard about the story on the podcast Imaginary Worlds. The podcast is one of my favorites; it explores fantasy worlds (both bookish and otherwise) and why we’re drawn to them. I’ve learned about everything from characterization in D&D to a live, immersive theater retelling of Alice in Wonderland, as well as explorations of more mainstream fantasy like Harry Potter. Imaginary Worlds doesn’t usually have authors as guests, but the episode The First Three Lives of Catherine Webb was different; the guest was author Catherine Webb. And it was also Kate Griffin. And also Claire North, author of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. It was all those people because Catherine Webb writes under three names; the genres she writes in and audiences she writes for are different, so her publishers encouraged her to publish separately to avoid diluting each brand.
All that is a story for, well, the podcast. The story I want to focus on here is the book The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, which I think is incredible. I chased this book all over town (I literally went to three different bookstores) because I was heading off on a week-long trip and wanted something longish and absorbing, but not boring, which is a balance that I think is difficult to find. I also wanted a paperback (to fit in my suitcase), and Harry August fit the bill.
The book is about a man named Harry August who is born and lives his life. But after he dies, he’s born again — into the same life, which he has to live again. He does this over and over (fifteen times by the end of the book). And he finds other people who live this way, too. Some become allies, some friends — and some, of course, are villains, which is where the story gets its structure.
The way Claire North (let’s call her that for simplicity’s sake) handles this material is incredible. Time travel is always tricky, and this plot in particular could’ve gotten repetitive. But even though Harry’s theoretically living the same life, it doesn’t get boring. Real history is woven throughout the book, but it never makes you feel like you’re in a classroom. The plot itself has breadcrumbs dropped throughout that come together beautifully and don’t feel forced. Because the lives of so many characters reset themselves, the book brings up the question of what really matters in life — and, at least in Harry August, I think it comes down to experiences, knowledge and relationships.
The time travel is handled perfectly in Harry August, and the narrative itself is constructed incredibly well, but to me, the relationships in the story are the real stand-out. Harry’s connections with his parents, his wives, his enemies, and one friend in particular, are somehow even more realistic and beautiful because the story itself is so fantastical.
Obviously, I think The Fifteen Lives of Harry August is worth the read; it’s not edge-of-your-seat gripping (although it has those moments), but it’s consistently compelling. I doubt you’ll want to read it in one sitting, but it’s a great book to have by your reading chair or on your bedside table to pick up for half an hour or so every day. I think you’ll look forward to the time you spend with it, and you’ll be satisfied — and impressed with both Claire North and Harry August — in the end.
Carrie Rollwagen is cofounder of Church Street Coffee & Books and host of the podcast Everybody Hates Self-Publishing. She hopes you’ll read as many books as you can, and that you’ll get them all from your local bookshop or library. You can find Carrie on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter @crollwagen.