Sunday, May 18, 2014

If I'd Known Then What I Know Now

The life relived is a thing these days, I think, like vampires or zombies.  Kate Atkinson's Life After Life did it in a literary fashion; Claire North's The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August has a different spin that is both more compelling and more explicitly philosophical.

Harry August lives his life through, and when he dies he is born again--in the same year, the same place, to live the same life over.  He is a kalachakra, and after going through the usual first-few-lives rough spots--thinking you're crazy, getting all philosophical, wondering if you're the only one--he learns of the Cronos Club, a group of people with the same gift/affliction.

Each of them lives their life in a loop, and they meet repeatedly during the overlaps.  They're libertines, researchers, adventurers, and philosophers.  But something else is happening--the future is changing, and Harry needs to figure out why.

This book sounded intriguing, which is why I picked it up (disclosure: I got an advance copy from the publisher for review).  Then I read the Book Smugglers' review at Kirkus, which was kind of mediocre, so I put off reading it for a bit.  But when I did pick it up, it drew me along almost seamlessly, and I couldn't put it down.  

Groundhog Day is an apt comparison.  Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall also came to mind.  But unlike so many other books structured around this premise, this one was really an adventure/mystery type of story.  Most of these other repeated life books are about trying to get it right, trying to be a good person, or trying to find the meaning of life.  But when that comes up in this novel, it's somewhere between a sideline and a McGuffin. 

Of course, these long-lived people who are so different from the rest of us wonder why they live and what it means.  They mostly don't wonder, though, what they should be doing with their lives.  Each of them sorts that out for themselves, to whatever extent it's possible.  Some pursue knowledge as the source of understanding, some pursue pleasure, since they can.  Some work to do good for us normals, while others work to help other kalachakra.  The answer to the book is not the answer to the great mysteries.

The Book Smugglers review speaks of August's detachment, and they're not wrong.  That didn't bother me, though--it seemed like a scientist's account of the events.  The first half of the book is mostly given over to learning about how it works to live this kind of life--how you manage childhood with adult memories, how the Chronos Club communicates, the risks and rewards of living multiple lives.  I love this kind of detailed layout of a complicated system, and it's done very deftly here. 

The adventure picks up in the second  half of the book, where Harry has discovered the problem and is trying to sort it out and solve it, and I won't spoil that, but I will tell you that it trots along and keeps you rolling.  There's a bit of a slow spot in the middle between the two sections, where we've learned all about kalachakra life but we're only just starting to suspect the danger, but that lag passes pretty quickly. 

Okay, my ONE big complaint here?  There's a framing element to the story, a premise that it's being written as a letter to someone.  That only comes up in a very few places, but when it's revealed at the end, it doesn't make sense.  I just feel that if you're going to use a framing story like that, it has to make sense, and this doesn't.  To hide the identity of the letter's recipient, the author has structured a letter whose writing makes no sense.  It doesn't come up enough to be a big problem, but it's kind of annoyingly careless for such a tight, controlled writer.

I think this could be a very interesting book club book, if you wanted to do something lighter and really engaging.  There are a lot of good things to discuss--the relation between science and morality, the perils of immortality, the value of an immortal life vs. a mortal one, what you'd do if a loved one told you he was immortal and had lived the same life over and over again, the role of fatherhood in the story, the notion of forgetting as death.  Not really the direction my book club would usually go, but I kind of wish I had them to discuss it with.

Also, now I'm going to look up who Claire North is (I believe it's a pseudonym) and find her other books!

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