“The world is ending, as it always must. But the end of the world is getting faster.”
It is not easy to write a review about this book without spoilers, but I will give it a try. It is also difficult to tell you what this book is really about. I could tell you there is a man named Harry August, and for a thousand years there has always been a man named Harry August, and he is the same man, but not a thousand years old as we experience time. For Harry August life is a constantly repeating loop of birth and death that encompasses the 20th century, and once - for a short while - the start of the 21st century. He is always born in the same place. Providing accident, or worse, does not befall him he always dies of the same illness. Certain points of his life are always present. He always participates in World War II, as all English men his age must, though after his first few lives he knows enough to stay out of the worst of it. But in telling you that, I have not actually told you anything of what this book is about.
Telling you that, as I wrote previously, is difficult. It would frankly be easier to tell you what this book is not about, and from that you may get an inkling of what it is about. To that end, I will fill you in on what this book is not about, and we'll proceed from there.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North is not about science. This is not a science fiction novel, though it does lean on some elements of that genre to make it work. The science discussed in this book is more metaphysical contemplation than research. Though technology figures prominently in the motivations of the antagonist, it is only a shell which gives a form to the metaphysical vehicle of the story. If one stops and critically thinks about what the antagonist is doing, it makes no sense from a scientific view. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle makes certain of that. Einstein's theories can't apply, as they give a nature to time and space to which this story does not adhere. To say more would be to give spoilers, and I really hate doing that, so I ask you to take my word. The technology is not only improbable, but impossible in that it would never do what the antagonist wants it to do. And time, from any practical cosmological foundation, is a one way street - at least for creatures of baryonic matter such as us. For that reason, this book can not be about science.
This book is not about revenge. It would be very easy to think it is, because Harry is bent on stopping a man who brutalizes him in the most heinous ways imaginable. But revenge, even long thought about and planned revenge, has an emotional motivation that is caustic in a way Harry's actions are not. Many things that Harry August does and has done to him during his fifteen lives could be seen as revenge, but they lack the caustic propellent that makes revenge so psychologically destructive to those who are consumed by it. Harry acts out of conviction rather than emotion. His feelings for others are outweighed by those convictions at practically every turn. No, Harry is not a man driven by revenge - even when he tries to ensure he always finds time commit that one murder in every life no matter what. (See, I told you it was hard to write this review without spoilers, but it's a very minor one so please forgive me.) To Harry, it is about justice, and sometimes justice can look a lot like revenge.
This book is not about religion. Period. Harry August is not Jesus resurrected or anything even remotely divine. There is no Jesus figure in this book, not even technology. However, the book most certainly does have something to say about religion, and if you are of a particular religious persuasion, any persuasion, you might not like what it has to say. Nevertheless, this book is most definitely not about religion, even if the antagonist constantly talks about God. Even if the nature of God and humankind's relationship to God is explored at great length, that does not mean this book is about religion. It simply is not. Get over it.
And lastly, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is NOT Groundhog Day; nor is it Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis. Just because the trope is a life relived over and over doesn't mean Claire North's book is Edge of Tomorrow either. It is far more nuanced and intricate than that movie. It is far more real. Harry August's experiences are what make him Harry August, and that's important. He's not out to get his life back. That will happen one way or another anyway. He doesn't need to become something he's not. It's all about becoming what he needs to be whether he wants to or not.
“I know now that there is something dead inside me though I cannot remember exactly when it died.”
Nor is this book similar to Blackout/All Clear in anything except the most superficial coincidences. For one thing, not one character in Blackout/All Clear gets to do it all over again. Yes, there is knowledge of past and future in both stories, but the ramifications of that knowledge are treated in a wholly dissimilar manner. Claire North has told a story of her own making. This is a unique look at the time loop trope that focuses on one man, and what it means to be kalachakra, the ancient Sanskrit word these people use to refer to themselves. It delves into the depths of human nature, both good and bad, and arrives at its own conclusions.
What those conclusions are I can't really say. I hate this book because of that. It never once gave me a clue on how I was supposed to feel about anything - glorious or heinous. Hell, things were even black and white at times and I still don't know how I should feel about them, because there were reasons - good, understandable reasons - for why the characters acted as they did. At times I loved the antagonist, and hated the protagonist. A chapter later and my feelings completely flip-flopped. In the end, I had no choice but to accept Harry's summation of his relationship with the antagonist as the only consolation for being their emotional marionette.
"My enemy, my friend."
And that right there is perhaps the most accurate statement of what The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is all about - maybe. There are a lot of other things to consider as well. I will certainly be thinking about this book for a long time to come. It's that good a book.
“What is the point of you?
The world is ending.
Now it's up to you.”