Claire North, a pseudonym of British author Catherine Webb, published her novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
in April 2014. The book received critical acclaim, going on to win the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. It was also nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and was featured in both the Richard and Judy Book Club and the BBC Radio 2 Book Club.
The novel’s protagonist, Harry August, is a Kalachakra. He is part of a species of humans who live multiple lives. Every time they die, they are reborn and return to the original location of their birth. For Harry August, that location is the women's washroom of Berwick-upon-Tweed station in the North-East of England, where he was first born in 1919. The novel starts out as Harry comes to the end of his eleventh life. As he lies on his deathbed, fully aware of what is in store for him, he receives a visit from a young girl who is also a Kalachakra. She has come to Harry with a warning: the end of the world is coming, and it is getting closer every day.
The novel then proceeds to describe Harry’s previous incarnations, and how he came to exist in the world in the first place. His mother was a kitchen maid who worked in a manor for the Hulne family. She became pregnant after she was raped by Rory Hulne. When the rest of the family discovered that she was pregnant, they promptly fired her. Harry’s mother had nowhere to go and no support system, and after giving birth to Harry in the women’s bathroom at the train station, she died. Harry was then adopted by the Hulne family’s groundskeeper, Patrick August, and his wife, Harriet. The rest of Harry’s first life is described as being rather mundane and largely uneventful. At this point, he did not yet know he was a Kalachakra.
The first time that Harry was reborn, it was a shock. It took him some time to realize what was going on and to accept his second life. Ultimately, it drove him to madness. Unable to understand what was happening to him, he committed suicide at age seven. Of course, Harry was then reborn once again, at which point he realized that simply killing himself would not end the cycle. Therefore, he decided to spend his life traveling the globe studying the world’s major religions, looking for answers that would explain his predicament.
When Harry is reincarnated the fourth time, he meets Jenny with whom he falls in love. His feelings for her prompt him to confide in her about his multiple rebirths, explaining to Jenny that because of this, he is able to predict the future. After hearing this, Jenny becomes convinced that Harry is mentally ill, and he is admitted to a psychiatric hospital. While at the hospital, Harry meets Franklin Phearson, a government agent. Noticing that Harry’s premonitions about future events are true, Franklin spots an opportunity for himself in what others only interpret as mental illness. He tells Harry about the Cronus Club, a group of people who are rumored to live their lives over and over again, just like him.
Phearson takes Harry out of the psychiatric hospital, wishing to utilize his knowledge about future events to change the course of history. Phearson tortures Harry to get him to reveal what he knows about the future. Harry desperately attempts to contact the Cronus Club to ask them for help. Finally, he receives a visit from Virginia from the Cronus Club who helps Harry to commit suicide and arranges to meet with him in his fifth life.
At the beginning of Harry’s fifth life, Virginia explains the history of the Cronus Club and admits him as a member. She warns Harry never to reveal his point of origin, the time and place he was originally born because other Kalachakra could use this information to ensure that he is never reborn.
During Harry’s sixth life, he meets Vincent, another Kalachakra, and the two develop a tight-knit friendship. However, Harry soon discovers that Vincent is attempting to build a quantum mirror, a machine capable of explaining everything that occurs in the universe. In doing so, he is manipulating time and altering the technological course of history. Harry grows concerned that Vincent is meddling too much with the space-time continuum; his concern is further exacerbated when he discovers that Vincent has killed other members of the Cronus Club. Vincent and Harry get into an altercation and Vincent tries to erase Harry’s memories, but Harry commits suicide in order to escape and preserve his memory.
During Harry’s fifteenth life, he saves Vincent from a radioactive accident. Vincent is touched by the demonstration of loyalty and friendship and tells Harry things about his past that he has never told anyone else before, including his point of origin. Harry kills Vincent before he can be born, therefore ensuring that he does not bring about the end of the world.