“The second cataclysm began in my eleventh life, in 1996.”
Harry August is born in a railway station bathroom in the middle of winter. After a long and largely uneventful life (don’t worry, not detailed in the story!), he dies. Harry August is born in a railway station bathroom in the middle of winter… no, not a typo. Harry lives and dies and starts over again and again. The obvious comparison would be to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, but with the difference that Harry remembers everything from all of his previous incarnations.
This changes the scenario entirely, of course! Although it takes a few years for Harry’s infant brain to catch up with all of his memories, and a few years more to be old enough to be able to do much about any of it (this reliving of childhood being the main discouragement to ‘resetting’ yourself on purpose), the ability to carry forward knowledge and skills is a rather amazing one. Certainly, it appeals massively to me – imagine, all those lives to be able to try out any and every occupation, hobby, or pursuit that could ever take your fancy.
And this is exactly what Harry does, learning engineering, medical and a host of other skills that he carries over to his next ‘reincarnation’, although that’s not quite what it is. Of course, for a few lives it’s far from that simple, as he tries to figure out what’s going on. Eventually, though, he discovers that he is not the only one, and indeed a chain of ‘ouroborans’ (after the snake eating its own tale, representing infinity) stretches both back and forward through time, passing messages via stone carvings, hidden caches, or its own members at the point of rebirth.
And then one day, one of these messages sends a chilling warning: the world is coming to an end.
I really enjoyed Harry’s adventures, particularly the scope of imagination around the possibilities of a groundhog day life. It’s tough not to compare the book to the aforementioned Life After Life, but I’d say the story line here is a little more concrete – you’re not left wondering ‘what was all that about’ quite so much – but the rich historical detail isn’t present, despite the similar time periods used. In that respect it was far less immersive, and probably won’t stay with me as long except perhaps as a rather ingenious concept. On the other hand, I liked that – despite the looming end-of-all-existence threat! – it was a lot less bleak of a read.
Hardback: 405 pages / 82 chapters
First published: 2014
Read from 8th-22nd October 2016
My rating: 8/10