By chance, I happened to read these three books consecutively. They turned out to explore similar themes but from quite different angles, and they fit together like three parts of a… something. What’s the three-part equivalent of “hand in glove”? Two legs in a pair of trousers, perhaps?
Touch by Clare North
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, also by Clare North
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
In Touch, a man called Kepler can transfer himself into the body of anyone he touches, pushing to the background the person who used to inhabit that body. He is not alone in having this power – there are others, but they are few. This power can of course be used in all manners of ways, but one obvious benefit is that he can effectively live forever, as long as he can find someone to touch before he dies. That is, in fact, how he discovers his power – he is killed, and instinctively jumps from his body, before it dies, into the killer’s.
The cover of the book sells it as a thriller, and it is. One day our man finds himself hunted. People are trying to kill him, people who know what he is and how he moves from body to body, and he needs to find out who and why.
But more interesting to me than the thriller plot was the exploration of this power, and what life choices it gives to its wielders. “Ghosts” vary as much as humans in general and use their abilities in very different ways. But like for normal humans, what most of them really want is to be loved.
It is a power, but it has its cost – the “ghosts” can never live a life that is fully their own. They are parasites. In order to live, they must push aside someone else, exploit someone’s body, take over their life – their family, friends, identity… With some, the exchange is conscious and willing. In other cases, a ghost steals decades of an unwitting host’s life and only leaves them when they are near death – and the original inhabitant of the body awakes in panicked pain and confusion.
I really liked Claire North’s writing style. It flows incredibly smoothly, fast-paced without ever feeling speedy, poetic despite its thriller plot. There is something touching and sad about its tone. Immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, when it comes with this kind of rootlessness.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is, in one reviewer’s words, “Life After Life done right”. While I don’t agree at all, I can see why they would say that.
Life After Life is about reliving a life, over and over – surviving an accident that killed you last time – but without ever truly remembering the previous lives. The most that you might get is a sense of foreboding when that accident nears, or a vague sense of familiarity, inexplicably feeling that you know what is about to happen.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is that, but with full memory and consciousness. Having lived and died once, Harry August is born again and lives the same life again. Unfortunately, unprepared for this experience as he is, the disorientation and horror soon drive him mad and he takes his own life. But he adapts, and while the next lives are far from happy, at least he survives into old age.
But, just as with Touch, Clare North adds a thriller angle. At the very end of one of his lives, Harry August is visited by a young girl who gives him a message to pass on to the Cronus Club, a fraternity of time travellers like him. (Handing a message to an old person on their deathbed, so that their reborn young self can pass it on to others, is the established way of communication backwards in time. This particular message has already travelled thousands of years.) She tells him that the world is ending. And with each cycle, the end is coming closer.
In parallel with the thrilling brain-twisting plot is unfolding (with extra brain-twistyness since it is presented non-linearly) the book (like Touch) explores the implications of this “power”, what it means for the person and what it does to them. Since Harry keeps his memories, he is not the same man the next time around – he learns, he makes different choices, sees the world differently, has different priorities. Where Life After Life truly feels like a never-ending cycle, Harry August’s many lives are more like a spiral: each cycle is the same, but different.
After a while, it all becomes “same old, same old” for Harry. When you’ve travelled all the places you want to travel, learned all the skills you want to learn, studied all the subjects you want to study, and every relationship is burdened by your unspeakable secret (as well as your unequal ages), endless life becomes dull.
One might think that as an immortal, there is endless opportunity to experiment to spice life up: just kill Hitler and see what happens! or introduce future technology 50 years early! or try something else to kick life into a new groove. But any radical changes to the timeline would lead to future immortals not being born, and causing this to happen is the gravest possible sin among immortals. (This ideology of non-change underpins the plot, by the way: one immortal decides that he wants more from life, not just more of it.)
I have two quibbles with this book. Parts of it are rather slow. And so is Harry as a character and narrator – a bit dull and bland. The narrator in Touch feels a touch more sensitive and mature. It does not surprise me that Claire North wrote The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August before Touch.
Still, an excellent book – interesting, intellectually challenging, well written.
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell also has immortals, akin to those in Touch in that they live linearly rather than cyclically, but also akin Harry August in that they are reborn into a new body instead of transmigrating as and when they wish.
They are the centrepiece of the book, but for the most part they go almost unnoticed. Instead we follow the lives of a bunch of ordinary people. Holly Sykes is the first one we meet. The others are tangentially linked to Holly, and the stories all keep coming back to her.
After 400 pages of detail-rich realism and ordinary people leading ordinary lives (with just tiny hints of something strange going on in the background), suddenly Mitchell shifts gears and now we’re fantasy land. Holly gets drawn into a centuries-old war between a “good” bunch of immortals who get their immortality more or less naturally, and a “bad” bunch who consume other people’s lifespans, vampire-like. Magical duels and travelling through weird dimensions into impossible places and mysterious substances and made-up jargon and an Ultimate Battle to End All Battles and that sort of stuff. Mitchell is, frankly, not good at this kind fantasy – it’s like something out of a Dan Brown book. When we see the mystery up close, it loses much of its appeal and becomes almost silly.
… aaand then we’re done with the ultimate battle and back in the realm of realism again, but decades into our future, so it’s hard to tell how realistic this part of the story actually is.
It’s all very well written, brilliantly alive. I can open the book at any page and be sucked right in. But when I reach the end of the book, I’m unsure what the purpose was.
This book wasn’t Holly’s story – we know some of what happens in her life, but not enough actually happens to make it worth a book. It definitely wasn’t about the other people, because even less happens to them. (I could have skipped the whole of the part about the disillusioned writer and not missed anything.) And given how much of the time the immortals spend in the background (plus their ultimate battle doesn’t even resolve their war) it doesn’t seem to be about them either. I kept waiting for some kind of finale, some conclusion, and there was none.
I loved much it while I was reading it but I feel no strong need to read it again.