Friday, 18 April 2014

Review: 'The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August' by Claire North

I mainly chose this book because I haven't really read any time-travelling/time-related books in a while but the concept has fascinated me ever since Hermione's Time Turner. In the end, I think I probably should've thought more about the problems that come with this genre before requesting this book on Netgalley.

The extraordinary journey of one unforgettable character - a story of friendship and betrayal, loyalty and redemption, love and loneliness and the inevitable march of time.
Harry August is on his deathbed. Again.
No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.
Until now.
As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. 'I nearly missed you, Doctor August,' she says. 'I need to send a message.'
This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.
North's idea shouldn't allow for a stable plot and story. And it doesn't. There are so many questions that arise from the very first chapter and never leave that make the reader question the entire premise of the book. How come these people exist? Surely, their lives could never be the same, could never link together to form one whole, because every human being makes decisions unconsciously at times. What if his mother decides to abort him, what if his father kept it in his pants, what if there was a tragic accident that killed both of them? Would he not exit for one "life" and then be born again when circumstances are the same as before? Is that even possible? Is there a divine being that controls the lives of the "parents" to these special people to such an extent their birth will always happen? The book itself suggests no, so then how come these people exist if humans are still capable of free will? As you can probably see, once you start trying to think out the logic behind this idea of rebirth, there are massive gaps and flaws that simply can't be filled. Time is a tricky thing to deal with in novels and hardly ever works, especially not if authors try to introduce it in a massive global scale, like North does. What made it really hard for me to read this book was that North tries to include the past and future, adding even more confusion and impossibility.

North's novel functions on the basis that things happen because of one person, because of one decision. This is giving way too much agency to a human being. Anyone who ever had to write an essay about why certain empires collapsed knows there is always more evidence to blame the economy and the state of the world than simply the current ruler. No one person changes everything. Because if your main character has such an impact, then why don't the others of his kind as well? Surely the Trojan War was as terribly to those living in it at the time as this crisis is to Harry August' life. Then why could that not be changed? North here seems to follow the trend a lot of fiction has taken, in which the main character is special and important and everyone else seems incapable. Nothing about Harry August struck me as that special from those like him, yet he was the one who saved the world. Although I see the appeal, because it allows the reader to imagine themselves capable of the same, I dislike it because it seem disingenuous. We can't influence everything in our own lives, let alone that of others. Although I understand the need to allow fiction be "fantasy" (trust me, I love fantasy novels), what makes Fantasy and Science Fiction such amazing genres is that they have an incredibly strong core of realism. In this novel, there seems to be so much that doesn't make sense that it threw me off completely.

Overall, I quite liked North's writing style. It flows easily and is very coherent, yet at times I found myself skipping over passages that weren't relevant to the main plot. Whether it were descriptions or dialogues, they didn't add to my general understanding of what North wanted to achieve and since I was already confused enough, I decided to pass them by. This also included some passages relating to the scientific side of the novel. Now, I myself am an English student and as such very unschooled in what exactly Newton was thinking, but I discussed some of this with my father who does not his stuff and I don't think it made sense.  Claire North is a pseudonym for a British author who apparently already has some other novels published, which are completely different from this one. Already established authors often go for pseudonyms when they venture into science fiction and perchance a reason for this is that they themselves are not sure about the science and facts behind their plots.

Overall, I give this novel...

2 Universes.

If you're not bothered by logic behind your plot, then this is a very agreeable read. If, however, you tend to get bothered by how any of this would be possible, then this is not your book. The side-characters never really came to life for me and felt like caricatures, easily forgettable and unnecessary for the plot. It really bothered me that I couldn't make sense of the plot and make it work logically and it interfered with my reading from the very beginning, spoiling the reading experience. It simply didn't work.

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