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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2011, 564 p.

The Thousand Autumns of Jocab de Zoet cover

This novel has been described in a quote on the back cover as a tour de force and I must say it is likely to remain in my mind for a long time. It will certainly figure in my best of the year even if this is still only February.

The Jacob de Zoet of the title is a Dutchman who, in order to prove his worthiness to marry his sweetheart Anna, is out to make his fortune in the Dutch trading mission on the island of Dejima off Nagasaki at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (CE) – during the Tokugawa Shogunate, when all other European contacts were banned, as was travel abroad for Japanese. The present tense narration is in the third person, save for a single chapter in first person from the point of view of a slave in the Dutch trading post. Woven into the tale is the history of relations between Japan and the outside world up to that point. While the novel is roughly based on incidents that took place on Dejima around that time I would hazard that the part of the plot involving the Lord Abbot Enomoto is not.

The first part of the novel outlines de Zoet’s endeavours in exposing the various corruptions of previous Chiefs of the post and his interactions with Japanese translators. Reading about the difficulties of translation between Japanese and Dutch in a third language – English – is a bit surreal. The very first chapter, however, introduces us to Aibagawa Orito, the disfigured daughter of a samurai, who is learning to be a midwife under the tutelage of the Dutch doctor at Dejima. Her path and de Zoet’s cross and, despite feelings of guilt at betraying Anna, Jacob becomes attracted to Orito. His hopes in affairs of the heart and commerce are both soon dashed. In the second section, where Aibagawa Orito has been taken away to the religious institution run by the Lord Abbot, the novel takes a sudden left turn as this middle part of the book deals solely with her plight and the efforts of her Japanese admirer, the interpreter, Ogawa Uzaemon, to free her. The third and concluding part of the novel returns us to Dejima as well as on to the British frigate which arrives to attempt to take advantage of the fall of the Netherlands to Napoleon’s armies.

The book is unusual in that it contains a number of illustrations, mostly anatomical but also two townscapes – well, one townscape and a shrinescape – plus some of “de Zoet’s” sketches of Origo.

While reading I was struck by certain parallels with Science Fiction. There is a type of SF story which also has an isolated trading/diplomatic post many months (or years) travel from home, dealing with and trying to understand a different culture. In Origo’s captivity we have different SF parallels but they are even more marked, as the Sheranui Shrine is a closed society with its own rules and a menace at its heart.

The characters, especially the Japanese, impress. Care and detail is lavished both on them and on the background. Even the minor ones have the ring of truth. That short first person chapter includes a meditation on the internal autonomy of slaves. One member of the Dutch mission tells de Zoet, “Tain’t good intentions that pave the road to hell; it’s self-justifyin’s.” There is also towards the end a very rhythmic paragraph listing the lives/occupations of the inhabitants of Nagasaki which is reminiscent of Auden’s The Night Mail in its metre and rhyming. Then there was the almost impenetrable phrase, “A smoke-dried Dane makes Finn’s Cock of a tangled Vang,” which seems to entangle nautical terms with the history of the times.

A tour de force? It was certainly fascinating and absorbing throughout, likely to remain with me for a long time.

Pedant’s corner:- “A well-travelled round of Edam and sour apples are divided,” (a round is singular;) snonky appears to be a coinage by Mitchell; wistaria (apparently a variant of the more usual wisteria) was repeated several times; “the pair enjoys,” (again; a pair is singular) guarding this natural revile (revile here is in the sense of ravine but I can’t find such a definition anywhere.)

100 Best Scottish Books (Maybe)

I came across this list a week or so ago. There are some odd choices in it. The Woolf and Orwell are surely pushing it a bit to qualify as in any way Scottish. And The King James Bible? Yes he was primarily a Scottish King but the endeavour was undertaken for reasons to do with his English realm.

Those in bold, I have read. There’s a lot I haven’t. Time to pull my socks up.

John Galt – Annals of the Parish (1821) is on my tbr pile. I’ve read The Member and The Radical. See my review here.
Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul – An Oidhche Mus Do Sheòl Sinn (2003) This is written in Gaelic and hence beyond my competence.
Kate Atkinson – Behind the Scenes at the Museum – (1995) I read this years ago.
Ian Rankin – Black and Blue (1997) I’ve not read this Rankin but I have Knots and Crosses.
Laura Hird – Born Free (1999)
Tom Nairn – The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism (1977) Non-fiction
Frederic Lindsay – Brond (1984)
Naomi Mitchison – The Bull Calves (1947) Not a Mitchison I’ve read but I’ll need to catch up with more of her work.
Anne Donovan – Buddha Da (2003)
Matthew Fitt – But n Ben A-Go-Go (2000) Science Fiction in Scots! Brilliant stuff.
Patrick MacGill – Children of the Dead End (1914)
AJ Cronin -The Citadel (1937) Cronin was from Dumbarton. I’ll need to read him sometime.
Frank Kuppner – A Concussed History of Scotland (1990)
Robin Jenkins – The Cone-Gatherers (1955)
Thomas De Quincey – Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822)
Iain Crichton Smith – Consider the Lilies (1968)
R. M. Ballantyne – The Coral Island (1858) I may have read this as a child but I cannot actually remember doing so.
Louise Welsh – The Cutting Room (2002)
Robert Alan Jamieson – A Day at the Office (1991)
Archie Hind – The Dear Green Place (1966)
James Kelman – A Disaffection (1989) I read years ago. Kelman is essential.
RD Laing – The Divided Self (1960) non-fiction
William McIlvanney – Docherty (1975) Again read years ago. Again McIlvanney is essential reading.
David Hume – An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) Philosophy. I haven’t read this.
Andrew Greig – Electric Brae (1997) A superb first novel. See my review here.
Tobias Smollett – The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771) Smollet was from Renton, which is 2 miles from Dumbarton.
Violet Jacob – Flemington (1911)
Agnes Owens – For the Love of Willie (1998) See my review here.
Ian Fleming – From Russia, With Love (1957) Fleming? Scottish? Only by extraction it seems.
Dorothy Dunnett – The Game of Kings (1961)
Denise Mina – Garnethill (1998)
James Frazer – The Golden Bough (1890)
Nancy Brysson Morrison – The Gowk Storm (1933)
Bernard MacLaverty – Grace Notes (1997)
George Mackay Brown – Greenvoe (1972)
Alistair MacLean – The Guns of Navarone (1957) I read this many years ago. Decent enough wartime thriller.
J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)
Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness (1902) Conrad was the favourite author of the original Jack Deighton (my grandfather.) I’ve read The Secret Agent and always mean to get round to more. But… Wasn’t Conrad Polish?
John Prebble – The Highland Clearances (1963) Non-fiction
Ali Smith – Hotel World (2001) See my review here.
Arthur Conan Doyle – The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)
George Douglas Brown – The House with the Green Shutters (1901) A Scottish classic; see my review.
Willa Muir – Imagined Corners (1931)
Luke Sutherland – Jelly Roll (1998)
Chaim Bermant – Jericho Sleep Alone (1964) is on the tbr pile.
James Robertson – Joseph Knight (2003) Robertson is another of those very good present day Scottish authors. My review of Joseph Knight.
Various – King James Bible: Authorised Version (1611) ???? See comments above.
Alasdair Gray – Lanark (1981) Absolutely superb stuff. More essential reading.
Ronald Frame – The Lantern Bearers (1999)
James Boswell – The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)
Bella Bathurst – The Lighthouse Stevensons (1999) Non-fiction. I bought this for the good lady and it’s another I keep meaning to read.
George MacDonald – Lilith (1895) The Scottish tradition is to write fantasy rather than SF. I’ll need to catch up with this.
John Burnside – Living Nowhere (2003)
Anne Fine – Madame Doubtfire (1987)
Alan Spence – The Magic Flute (1990) I’ve read his Way to Go.
Des Dillon – Me and Ma Gal (1995)
Margaret Oliphant – Miss Marjoribanks (1866)
Alan Warner – Morvern Callar (1995) I think Warner’s most recent books The Worms can Carry me to Heaven and The Deadman’s Pedal are more successful.
George Friel – Mr Alfred, MA (1972)
Neil Munro – The New Road (1914)
William Laughton Lorimer (trans.) – The New Testament in Scots (1983)
George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) I know it was written on Jura but Orwell? Scottish?
Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long – No Mean City: A Story of the Glasgow Slums (1935)
Alexander McCall Smith – The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998)
Christopher Brookmyre – One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night 1999) Brookmyre is a fun read – if a little too liberal with the violence. But this isn’t even his best book. See my review here.
Catherine Carswell – Open the Door! (1920)
Andrew O’Hagan – Our Fathers (1999) I have yet to warm to O’Hagan. My review of this book.
A.L. Kennedy – Paradise (2004) Kennedy’s more recent Day and The Blue Book impressed me more.
Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) My review is here.
James Hogg – The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) The quintessential Scots novel. The döppelganger tradition starts here.
Suhayl Saadi – Psychoraag (2004)
Nan Shepherd – The Quarry Wood (1928)
Walter Scott – Rob Roy (1818) Scott more or less invented the Scots historical novel but I can only remember reading Ivanhoe.
Thomas Carlyle – Sartor Resartus (1836) Anothe disgraceful omission on my part I fear.
Toni Davidson – Scar Culture (1999)
Margaret Elphinstone – The Sea Road (2000) I’ve read Elphinstone’s A Sparrow’s Flight and The Incomer; but not this.
Jimmy Boyle – A Sense of Freedom (1977)
George Blake – The Shipbuilders (1935)
Gordon Williams – The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (1969)
Neil M Gunn – The Silver Darlings (1941) Of Gunn’s work I’ve only read The Well at the World’s End.
Ron Butlin – The Sound of My Voice (1987) I’ve not read his poetry but Butlin’s fiction is excellent. My review of The Sound of my Voice.
Robert Louis Stevenson – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) Following on the döppelganger tradition from Hogg. Again I can’t remember if I’ve read it or just watched adapatations on TV.
Jeff Torrington – Swing Hammer Swing! (1992)
Lewis Grassic Gibbon – Sunset Song (1932) A brilliant novel. Worth its status as a classic. See my thoughts here.
John Buchan – The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915)
Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse (1927)
Irvine Welsh – Trainspotting (1993)
Janice Galloway – The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989) I fear Galloway is an acquired taste. See here.
Jackie Kay – Trumpet (1998) I read this last year.
Christopher Rush – A Twelvemonth and a Day (1985)
Michel Faber – Under the Skin (2000)
David Lindsay – A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) In the Scots tradition of the fantastical but has a weirdness all its own.
Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory (1984) The much lauded Banks debut. I’ve come to think A Song of Stone may outrank it.
Adam Smith – The Wealth of Nations (1776) The foundation stone of Economics.
Compton Mackenzie – Whisky Galore (1947)
Jessie Kesson – The White Bird Passes (1958) To be reviewed within the week!
Kenneth Grahame – The Wind in the Willows (1908) I may have read this as a child but can’t honestly remember.
Alexander Trocchi – Young Adam (1954)
James Kennaway – Tunes of Glory (1956)
John Gibson Lockhart – Adam Blair (1822)

For Interzone 258

 Beta Life cover
 Impulse cover

My review of Beta-Life for Interzone 257 was sent off at the end of January. The issue should be out soonish.

Now arrived for review for Interzone 258 is Impulse by Dave Bara. Book one of “The Lightship Chronicles” apparently. Mr Bara is new to me. There’s an Ancillary Justice/Sword feel to that cover – which is a fair amount to live up to.

The Chalice of Death by Robert Silverberg

In “The Chalice of Death,” Planet Stories, 2012, 91 p. First published as Lest We Forget Thee, Earth, 1958, as by Calvin M Knox.

Lest We Forget Thee Earth cover
 The Chalice of Death cover

This book is (dis)graced by one of the most execrable covers (right) it is possible to imagine. I felt ashamed buying it. Still, I suppose it reflects the times in which the story was first published – though the original Ace Double cover (left) is more restrained. Silverberg is of course one of my SF immortals and the book contains two other early works of his which I shall get round to later. Not that his early stuff is necessarily of great quality; he fairly churned it out. It was only when he came back to the field in the late 1960s that his genius shone through. It is to him, specifically his The Man in the Maze, that my continuing reading of SF beyond that date is due.

In The Chalice of Death, Earth, once the centre of a great galactic empire, has been lost in the mists of time but nevertheless Earthmen act as advisors to the rulers on many of the planets. Hallam Navarre acts as one such to Joroiran VII on the planet Jorus. His rival advisor, the Lyrellan Kausirn, takes advantage of a minor slip to lever Navarre away from influence. As a result Navarre is sent by Joroirdan to locate the eponymous chalice, in the hope it will grant eternal life to the ruler. Since it doesn’t exist that represents a problem. Navarre and his companions, one a half-breed Earthman, the other, Helna Wistin a (female) advisor to the ruler of Kariad, nevertheless find Earth within a chapter or so and a vault there where survivors from the time of supremacy have been kept in suspended animation over the millenia. They hatch a plot to revive Earth’s fortunes and the remainder of the story follows that process.

On even the most cursory examination most of this falls apart. Since we only meet two actual full blood Earthmen (which is the generic term adopted throughout) it is difficult to see how the race has managed to propagate itself over the years – still less for individuals to accede to their positions as advisors. The slightly unsavoury assumption that Earthmen (it’s got me at it now) are intrinsically better than the universe’s other inhabitants was also unexceptional back in the 1950s. And it was amusing to find Navarre using a slide rule for a calculation. But none of this is the point. This is pulp adventure stuff and can only be read as such. No pretentions to characterisation need apply; nor any consideration of literary merit. I read it as a would-be Silverberg completist, without high expectation. I wasn’t disappointed. Nothing could dim my memories of Silverberg’s glory period.

A Sparrow’s Flight by Margaret Elphinstone

Polygon, 1989 , 257 p.

A Sparrow's Flight cover

Subtitled on the cover “A Novel of a Future”, A Sparrow’s Flight is set in the same post-apocalypse universe as Elphinstone’s The Incomer and features the same lead character, Naomi. Here, on her last night before travelling across to a tidal island (which internal evidence in the text suggests is Lindisfarne) she encounters Thomas, an exile from the once “empty lands” of the west, and is invited by him to return there with him. The lure is that she will discover there something from the past about music.

The novel covers a span of 29 days in which Thomas and Naomi traverse the country east to west, stay awhile at Thomas’s former home then travel back again. The chapters are of varying length and each covers just one of the days. Elphinstone’s future world is one in which the ruins of the past are feared, only low-tech exists; there is no transport, except perhaps for oxcarts and rowing boats for crossing water. Distance is an alienating factor. Once again the incomprehension Naomi has of the local norms is one of the themes. Complicating things are the fact the empty lands’ inhabitants are mistrustful of strangers and that Thomas himself has a past he wants to expiate.

Again, like The Incomer, this is a book in which nothing much happens, especially if you consider the music element of the story as more or less incidental. But quiet lives led quietly are worthy of record. When Thomas and Naomi return to their starting point they have both found things out about themselves and each other, of the importance of relationships and mutual benefit.

Pedant’s corner:- than you lead me to believe (led made more sense,) picked her her nightshirt, sprung, whistled under is breath.

Predator’s Gold by Philip Reeve

Scholastic, 2004, 316 p.

Predator's Gold cover

I spotted this in one of the local libraries that’s within a few miles of Son of the Rock Acres (there are actually six – only one of which the good lady has not yet checked out – plus several more within ten miles) and since I felt like a relatively undemanding read while still cogitating on my review of Beta-Life for Interzone and Bring up the Bodies I borrowed it.

It contains more adventures of Tom Natsworthy and Hester Shaw in the world of Municipal Darwinism familiar from Mortal Engines. Here Tom and Hester are forced to flee the Green Storm, a militant offshoot of the Anti-Traction League, and land on the city of Anchorage whose margravine Freya, a teenage girl forced into rule by the untimely death of her parents in a plague, takes a fancy to Tom. Hester flies off in a fit of jealousy and betrays Anchorage’s location to the predator city Arkangel before being kidnapped by agents of the Green Storm. Tom is also kidnapped: by some Lost Boys, experts in burgling the wandering cities. Adventures ensue before our heros are reunited and return to try to save Anchorage from its fate.

This being a “young adult” book the subsidiary characters are drawn with broad brush strokes but are still recognisable people for all that. Not that Reeve is a slouch in the characterisation department. In the course of Predator’s Gold Freya and Hester undergo a fair degree of development.

The concept of Municipal Darwinism doesn’t withstand a moment’s scrutiny, of course. It isn’t meant to, but is a glorious device to allow the playing out of Tom’s and Hester’s relationship and the examination of issues of morality against a backdrop of jeopardy. The Lost Boys – under the direction of the nefarious “Uncle” – are a clever conflation of situations from Oliver Twist and Peter Pan.

The book is a delight throughout. (But does the cover not bring to mind Tintin books?)

Pedant’s corner:- One instance each of quick and slow being used as adverbs rather than adjectives, one opened set of brackets which wasn’t ever closed and a solitary typo, desciptions for descriptions. Reeve gets plus marks though for the word gowk and the diæresis in “Aëro engines.”

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The Worldbreaker Saga Book I. Angry Robot, 2014, 541 p.

 The Mirror Empire cover

In a series of planets with twin hour-glass suns and strange satellites named Para, Sina and Tira from which certain inhabitants can draw power when they are in the ascendant, an invasion from a parallel world is taking place. Transit between the worlds (which have differently coloured skies) is by means of something resembling a mirror but isn’t possible if the companion person is alive on the other side. The most powerful satellite, Oma, has not been ascendant for 2000 years but its influence is being felt more strongly.

Now, this parallel worlds and weird suns scenario could have been an intriguing SF setting but the author lost this reader’s sympathies when it turned out early on that the shedding of blood could also open gates between the worlds. Cue gratuitous bloodshed on a wide scale. I would submit this is laziness on the author’s part. Couldn’t we have had something a bit more inventive, a bit less sanguineous?

Add to this the fact that the characters have very little agency beyond advancing the plot, which itself takes a long time to get going, and you end up with a less than satisfying read. Oh, there is some jiggery-pokery about different gendering and women tend to be in power; but when they behave as powerful men would in our world is there any point?

Plus I really don’t see the point of Fantasy when its characters wield strange powers, even when they do have to endure for a while before growing into them. How does that illuminate the human condition?

It may be that I am committing the error of wishing to read the book that I might have desired Hurley to have written rather than the one she actually has, but when a book revels in so much gratuitous slaughter more or less for its own sake it’s time to call it off. I won’t be taking The Worldbreaker Saga any further.

Pedant’s corner:- Admittedly mine was an advance reading copy – I have my sources – but it was so full of typos, verb/noun disagreements, misspellings, missing words, repeated words, malapropisms (or near malapropisms which are perhaps better described as dyslexisms – scarified for sacrificed anyone?) awry punctuation and errors in lay-out etc that I gave up counting them after page 63. It may be she was under pressure to hand this in quickly but to my mind Hurley’s manuscript hasn’t been looked over critically enough before submission. And did no-one at Angry Robot seek to check it? Such things make the whole more difficult to read you know. I’m left harbouring a sense of disappointment with all concerned. And there was the use of drug as a past tense of drag which may be a niche USian habit but reads absolutely horribly.

The Extraordinary Voyage of Jules Verne by Eric Brown

PS Publishing, 2005, 137 p, plus iv p of introduction by Ian Watson.

The Extraordinary Voyage of Jules Verne cover

This handsomely produced novella was published to coincide with the centenary of Verne’s death in 2005. In that sense I’ve come to it about ten years too late. Part pastiche of Verne, part typical Eric Brown fare, this is an entertaining diversion, in which Verne is wheeched by means of a time-portal off to the Upper Cretaceous and the far future in a time machine which has the unfortunate drawback of leeching power from the sun and so causing Earth to freeze. Here too are a megalomaniac dictator, along with his nubile antagonist, not to mention ant-like interstellar aliens and strange gadgets. These adventures spark in Verne ideas he will later incorporate into fiction. What’s not to like? While there may be no profound points here – but neither were there in Verne’s fictions – what there is is an engaging adventure story with nods to the work of one of SF’s founding fathers.

Pedant’s corner:- gasses (gases,) panatela (panatella,) “hoves” as a present tense (heaves,) had take its toll on his reason (taken.)

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Black Swan, 2014, 622 p.

 Life After Life cover

Preamble:- I wanted to read this because its premise is similar to that of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August which I reviewed for Interzone 252, and put up here two posts ago. (Since Atkinson lives in Edinburgh Life After Life was also eligible for the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge, though in her author notes at the end she says it is actually about being English.)

Review:-
So. As the author, where do you start a novel whose conceit is that the same person lives her life out again and again, on each death recycling back to her moment of birth. Is it with her still-birth, when the darkness falls immediately, to set up the premise? No. That life comes second. The one where she drowns as a four-year-old? No. When she falls off the roof trying retrieve the doll her brother had thrown there? No again. The Spanish flu? Several times? No. The Blitz? Again several times? No. So where then?

Oh, Of course. You start, albeit briefly, with the life in which, before his rise to power, she kills Hitler. (Or tries to. We don’t know if she succeeds because his heavies shoot her, the darkness falls and so we recycle back to her birth. I note here that in the real world, outside this novel, many attempts were made on Hitler’s life; all unsuccessful.)

The problem I have with this attempt to attain a spurious significance is that it isn’t developed. In all the lives Ursula Todd experiences within this book – all, by the nature of the premise, altered histories – wider history is not affected one whit; World War 2 occurs regardless (if Ursula even lives long enough to witness it.) I therefore struggle to see the point of the novel, what it is Atkinson is trying to say. Unless it’s that no matter what you do with your life nothing makes a difference. Which is a pretty bleak outlook.

Yes, in some of her succeeding lives Ursula has premonitions, or moments of déjà vu, which lead her to actions which avert the possibility of death or some other potential disaster in her present timeline – and to appointments with a psychiatrist – but this attribute is neglected for long parts of the book only to resurface in another Hitler killing episode. And we never follow events beyond Ursula’s death for, I suppose, the simple reason that she cannot witness them, yet the earliest sections of Life After Life are mainly given over to interactions within the household of which Ursula becomes a part, most of which she similarly does not witness. Life follows life and it is all very well laid out and interesting enough if a trifle depressing what with all the deaths. A recurring child molester/killer incident seems particularly gratuitous. Far from being about the state of Englishness the book is really more bound up with death and the innumerable ways in which it can come about. The other two principal novelistic concerns, love and sex, do get a look in but almost incidentally.

While at one point Ursula is allowed to muse, “That was the problem with time travel, of course (apart from the impossibility) – one would always be a Cassandra, spreading doom with one’s foreknowledge of events,” she does not actually travel in time, except in the normal way, before being rebooted, and her foreknowledge is never conscious, she cannot rationalise it. Elsewhere she says, “… you just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.” To which her brother Teddy replies, “What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” Yet even in the life where Ursula reaches 1967 before dying it is difficult to see whether she got it right. (Remember; history isn’t changed.) Yet she can come to the conclusion that time isn’t circular, it’s a palimpsest – a conceit to which Life After Life, as a printed book, cannot quite live up. (Perhaps only an electronic medium would truly allow that.)

I’ll say this for Atkinson. She has come up with a neat way of incorporating all the ideas she may have had about the possible courses of her protagonist’s life – too many to be credible for a unique lifespan – without having to discard any single one of them; but while Life After Life is very readable it doesn’t really go anywhere. Maybe time is circular after all.

Pedant’s corner:- Izzie’s call to alms. (Since Izzie was going to be a VAD neither call to arms nor call to alms really makes any sense.) I can find no dictionary entry for “banting” – even online. Then there was, “reached a crescendo,” (that would be a climax, perhaps?) and furlough is USian, as is medieval. Plus points, though, for the Misses Nesbit.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Orbit, 2014, 407 p. Reviewed for Interzone 252, May-Jun 2014.

There is a potential problem with the central premise of novels broadly comparable to this. It is one which also besets any work of fiction set either in virtual reality or a computer game. To wit: if a character cannot die – or can be resurrected after death – where, then, is the jeopardy? Why ought readers invest time and energy in sympathy or empathy; why should they care? Here that problem is encapsulated by the title (and for the reviewer is exacerbated by the accompanying promotional material.) We know before the outset that Harry August has at least fifteen lives. Why, then, for example, should the grubby circumstances of his conception and initial upbringing matter to us? However, “North” – the publishers emphasise that the author is pseudonymous but has experience – neatly sidesteps the issue by beginning “her” story at the end of Harry’s eleventh life, thus making it clear that any single life journey is not of itself crucial. And the jeopardy is not to Harry alone, but to human existence. “The world is ending.”

This idiosyncratic book reads at various points as if the author could not quite decide what sort of beast it actually is, first like a literary novel, then a thriller, a historical tract, a spy story and a tale of revenge – all the while riffing on Alternative History. And, yes, it does veer (rather suddenly) into more straightforward Science Fiction about halfway through, then morphs back again before returning to SF for its dénouement. As befits a tale of someone with more than fifteen lives the narrative is not linear but skitters about, incorporating vignettes from Harry’s existences, encounters with others of his kind. Yet it does manage to come together as a more or less coherent whole.

Harry is one of the kalachakra, an ouroboran, humans whose consciousness and memories of previous lives recycle back to birth after their death. In subsequent lives these memories begin to resurface after infancy. Before the lives accumulate this can lead to madness, later there can be advantages. Perhaps even worse for Harry, he is what the kalachakra call a mnemonic: he forgets nothing. Kalachakra are few enough at any one time but are scattered throughout history, sometimes leaving messages in stone to their successors. No explanation is given for their unusual attribute; their reincarnations just happen. Their knowledge of past lives ensures that no new one is a carbon copy of a previous existence. The Cronus Club, an organisation kalachakra have set up to succour their kind, can help remove them from the boredom of a re-lived childhood. And it turns out that the circumstances of Harry’s birth do matter. Kalachkra can be excised from the world, if they are prevented from being born. Harry’s obscure origins are a shield against any such calamity.

In each of his lives the broad sweep of history is similar but it is not emphasised in the text, except where the differences are obvious, that the detail means subsequent lives cannot be lived in the original but instead take place in parallel worlds. In a stance reminiscent of Star Trek’s Prime Directive, the Cronus Club tries to ensure that kalachakra do not interfere with the course of history. Such activity has led to cataclysm at least once before.

Harry’s parallel existences have allowed him to learn many languages. His various employments take him all over the world, mainly in iterations of the 1950s, the primes of his lives, to a research establishment in the Soviet Union, the China of the Great Leap Forward, and to the USA. In one of these lives Harry is a physicist and meets the charismatic Vincent Rankis, subsequently becoming involved in Rankis’s project to build a quantum mirror – a device which will bestow a God’s perspective on the world.

While the writing is effective and for the most part reads smoothly, out of kilter phrases such as, among others, “a skill as much valued in the incompetence than the mastery,” (about punting on the Cam) might suggest that English is not actually “North”’s first language. There is also a lack of fine tuning in the last chapter where the readership to whom the narrative is addressed shifts from where it had lain up to then, the general (you and me,) to the specific. In addition the resolution comes a little too easily and strikes against the established character of Harry’s antagonist.

This book may well become an award nominee but for all its apparent ground-breaking aspirations and apocalyptic overtones The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is in the end a rather conventional tale. But, then, in all of literature, there are said to be only seven distinct plots.

The following entries to Pedant’s Corner did not appear in the published review:-

Again I read an uncorrected proof copy so some of these may be amended in the actual book but we had Ecstacy for Ecstasy, periphery nervous system for peripheral nervous system, neckless for necklace, a human stimuli, solice for solace, “her success (in finding a very few) cannot be underestimated” (overestimated, surely?) “did not less to see the end of his dream,” (live) “where he had began,” “at which all intercourse seeks” (ceases,) “azures of wisdom,” “I had never fully understand the..,” “the sense of unity that all these hardships create,” (creates) “illustrating the momentous dead,” “passer-bys,” “we do not need hide much deeper than in plain sight,” “the single most existing time of our lives,” “points of origins,” “we would not with to inconvenience you,” “would have bought the Cronus Club tumbling down on their creator’s head,” “an vastly more effective spy,” “dot.com,” “he has been a present through my life” (presence,) “chaffed” (chafed,) “knowing full well that all these things …. it would be enough,” [not to mention that use of mnemonic.]

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