North, Claire. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.

NY: Redhook, 2014.

Wow. Just . . . wow.

Harry August, born New Year’s Day, 1919, is a bastard, the result of the young lord of the manor raping a kitchen maid. She dies in a railway station giving birth to him and he’s adopted by the gardener and his wife. His first life, before he knows there will be another, is entirely ordinary and he spends it assisting his father on the estate, with time out as an infantryman in World War II. And then he dies in his seventies — and is immediately reborn, back at the beginning of 1919.

And by the time he’s six, he remembers it all. Perhaps two people out of every million births are like this naturally.

In that second life, he believes he has gone insane — common for the kalachakra, or an ouroboran, as they call themselves — and commits suicide at age seven. In his third life, beginning to understand what he is and wanting to know why, he turns to religion, looking for the truth of the immortal soul, but to no useful conclusion. But he also discovers the existence of the Cronus Club, which has existed for some five thousand years, and whose purpose is to nurture the newly reborn — and to see to it that history isn’t tampered with. (It isn’t easy to change only the specific thing you aim at, so “complexity should be your excuse for inaction.”) His fourth life sees him becoming a doctor, searching for answers in biology, but with equal lack of a satisfactory explanation.

He also finds that he’s unusual even for a kalachakra, being a “mnemonic,” who never forgets anything. His subjective two centuries notwithstanding, his life is still largely ruled by biological imperatives, and so Harry falls in love, but only the once. He marries Jenny in his fourth life and eventually confesses his unusual nature to her, but ends up in an asylum for his honesty. And it’s a good thing, for all his later travels, that his increasingly vast and highly detailed memory retains the knowledge of where invasions and wars and natural disasters are scheduled to take place.

And then, during a life in which he’s a theoretical physicist at Oxford, he meets Vincent Rankis, a few years younger than himself. Vincent, also a mnemonic, has plans to change the world. It should only take five or six lives, starting over each time, but with all the knowledge of the previous attempts. To accomplish this goal, Vincent targets the do-gooders of the Cronus Club, erasing memories, arranging for the reborn to have never been born. And that threatens not only the world, it threatens the very existence of the kalachakra. (Their priorities of the essentially eternal are not the same as ours.) The word has come back to the past from the future (passed by ingenious methods) that the world is, in fact, ending — and it’s happening faster. And Harry is the only one in a position to stop it, no matter how many of his lives it takes.

I don’t know the author’s background but she has a solid grasp of the 20th century, which Harry and Vincent experience again and again, in all its variations. (Harry is directly involved in World War II seven times.) She also understands some rather abstruse science, or else fakes it very well. Her development of her principal characters is careful and precise, especially considering that they live for nearly nine subjective centuries each. There are also some interesting philosophical questions here. As Pherson the torturing spy from Harry’s fourth life says, “You think this doesn’t matter? You think you die and the world resets and that’s it? Are you God, Dr. August? Are you the only living creature that matters?” This is, in short, an amazing book.

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