It can be hard to write impressions about a book without spoiling its plot, especially when the novel is primarily a mystery or suspense story. Fortunately, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August wears its plot device proudly on the cover.
As you’d guess, The First Fifteen Lives features a protagonist by the handle Harry August, who is somehow able to live multiple lives. Disappointingly, the first-person narrator never bothers to explain how he’s able to span across more than one human life, and there doesn’t seem to be an underlying scientific explanation for how multi-life people can exist. That said, the story does focus on the psychological effects of effective immortality1 as well as its practical ramifications.
The story is set through the early- to mid-20th century. This is not a time period I personally have read or know much about, but happily the story does not depend on historical events to advance the plot. Everything in the world of The First Fifteen Lives is grounded in proper historical context, and there just happens to be a man who lives through his life multiple times. With each iteration, his emotions and behavior and actions continue to evolve and build upon his past lives, but since the reader experiences the transformation chronologically (to a degree), this technique lets Harry be a relatable character despite his immortality2.
I liked The First Fifteen Lives more than I had expected. There’s something fun in asking “what if?” about a particular area, and then extrapolating motivations, actions, and consequences from that one simple change while keeping history identical. It’s also novel to model immortality not as reincarnation or an elongation of natural life, but as a retread of life repeatedly, a Groundhog-Day life of sorts. In terms of provoking thoughts and ideas beyond the main plot, The First Fifteen Lives does a great job of continuing past its conclusion.
I’d imagine that whoever find themselves living forever would gradually reprioritize their lives, a la Dr. Manhattan. We, as run-of-the-mill mortal humans, would struggle to empathize with their newfound, timeless motivations.↩
It’s an honest treatment of immortality that avoids common tropes. Immortality or supernaturally long lifespans are usually just lazy justifications for characters who either can’t die by traditional means or have been witnesses to important historical events. Exhibit A – origin stories of supernatural beings in comic books.↩