Apr 26

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A Really Big Century

So, I should say some more stuff about Harry August.

Summaries abound for the book, and increasingly there seem to be a lot of reviews (many lovely, which is awesome for my ego!) so instead I figure I’ll zoom in on something completely different-yet-connected.  I mean, that’s author’s privilege, right…?

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August tells the story of a man who lives his life over and over again.  He’s born on January 1st 1919, and dies anywhere between 1980-2003 depending on how long his immune system can hold out, or if he doesn’t meet death by misadventure first.  When he is born again in 1919, he fairly quickly finds himself remembering the entire life he’s lived before – essentially, remembering the future.

When deciding when Harry should be born, and when he should die, was one of the most important choices in the book.  I wavered a bit, toying with having him born as late as the 1950s – but a great disadvantage of that was he could easily live to see my future, and I wasn’t sure that was the kind of book I was writing.  Eventually I settled on 1919 for the very simple reason that someone born then who lives to be, say, 80 years old, has the possibility to see some of the most incredible changes to ever rock human society.

It’s not simply the Big Headlines – the Great Depression, World War Two, the Cold War, Cuban Missile Crisis, Fall of the Berlin Wall – but it’s a huge shift in cultures in every country of the world.  Between 1919 and 1999, China will go from being an imperial country beset by warlords, to being a communist superpower, to being a country defined by the motto ‘to get rich is glorious’.  It’s so easy to forget that one pair of eyes could see all that, and to forget how much all of that encapsulates.  South Africa will go from being a colonial territory to an independent one dominated by an apartheid government, to a state where Nelson Mandela is finally freed and elected President.  Electricity spreads across the globe, as rather less fortunately does the car.  Charlie Chaplin is overshadowed by Michael Caine; Brahms by Elvis Presley.  Computing develops, medicine takes incredible leaps forward, man walks on the moon!   If ever you needed an image for an idea that simply couldn’t have been imaginable in 1919, then the image of Apollo 11 landing on the lunar surface just about encapsulates it.  Civil rights movements begin to rise – and some to totter – voices rising for freedom of religion, of race, of gender.

Even in my short lifetime, I feel I have lived through momentous changes for humanity.  I was born in 1986, when communism still dominated Eastern Europe.  The first mobile phone we ever bought was the size of a small brick.  Our first home computer was an Amstrad, and when we upgraded to something with 254MB of hard drive it felt like technology was running wild.  I remember the day the Twin Towers fell, and the day Obama was inaugurated, but through all of this what I mostly remember was trying to get decent GCSE results, the steady rise in bus fares in London, my friends and moving flats.  Memories of my youth seem banal, because they were simply my childhood, yet even looking back how different the 1980s and 1990s seem from today.

One of the great joys, therefore, of a character like Harry August is that he has a luxury we do not – he can look on the world of the 1920s with the eyes of someone who has lived in the society of the 1980s.  During the 20s, the repression of women, religions and races wasn’t merely common, it was something barely considered.  Imagine returning to that time having lived through the 1960s, the hippy movement, the collapse of the British Empire, the invention of the nuclear bomb!  How might the social prejudices of the time seem then?  How petty and blind are all the concerns of your contemporaries, as they blindly stumble closer and closer to economic disaster and world war?  If you have seen the Cold War begin and the Berlin Wall fall, how ridiculous must the ideological battles of the twentieth century become, and how hard it must be deciding, when you hear people declare with absolute sincerity that communism is evil, women are weak and the peoples of America should be ‘equal but separate’ whether you are going to laugh or weep?


Permanent link to this article: http://www.kategriffin.net/2014/04/26/a-really-big-century/


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  1. MidwestJoe

    How does it feel to go through all that change and then to be shunted back to before it all happened? Hmmm….probably similar to something that happened when I was a kid…I spent years building all of these crazy complex LEGO sets and I put them all into boxes, to be pulled out and played with from time to time…and then one of my siblings got angry one day, waited until I was at school, then went around and shook up every box, and when I got home…well…all that changes all those years spent creating and learning and growing…gone…in one moment, BAM, back to square one…but the memory of them still remained, so I had to decide where to go from there…it was a very peculiar feeling.

    I guess like Harry said, you wind up taking a few paths, you can accept things as they are….children learning how wrong they truly are and how to become right….and move on, letting the world do its thing. Or you can reject how things are, and try to change them, with rather…curious consequences….or you can ignore it all, forget, and greet every day as something brand new and never before seen.

    Incidentally, I’m writing this comment on April 26th and I just got to the part of the book where Harry mentions April 26th, 1986….and I thought “well why is that familiar….oh right…Chernobyl”…so odd timing on that bit. My hardcover copy came yesterday afternoon and I’m devouring it as we speak….the words not the paper…I’d need better seasonings to actually devour the paper…and a lack of anything else to eat…and perhaps a touch of insanity…nonetheless, I’m sure it would be tasty….ok where was I? Right, the book…love the choice of his birth date and death date…it’s staggering to think of how much has happened in the past one hundred years…and how much more will happen by the time I get to be that age. And that gets to me to thinking…say the Cronus Club is a real thing…I think it would be best to forget your future, maybe have hints of deja vu here and there, and to unconsciously take different paths but…that would exciting and grand and wonderful…even though I’ll never travel the world or do anything stupendous….I can turn left instead of right on my way home and who knows what I’ll find or what could happen? And to be able to do such a thing in such at time that we live in now, why that’s the greatest adventure ever! I’ve already met people from all over the world, I have gems or precious stones from every major mountain range in the world, I’ve met the Dalai Lama and George Carlin, and have been witness to astronomical events that won’t happen again for hundreds of years!

    The time that our generation lives in and the time that Harry’s generation lived in are simply amazing and I’m glad that you decided to set it up where and when you did. My mind did jump to Doctor Who when that bit about Hitler came up though…maybe I’m reading too much into that part though….meh…I love the jacket design for the book, all the stars and the title is so totally eye catching and just wow….I like it, good job…can’t say much else about it as I’m nearly falling asleep right now after work…so…now for something absurd.

    The back part of the book where the author bio thingy stuff usually goes only has the words: “Claire North is a pseudonym”….and I thought to myself “well that’d make for a great fill in the blank”…so it would start like this….Claire North is a __________. To which one could insert words such as marsupial, dune buggy, fantastic recipe for waffles, midnight blue rose, companion to the Doctor, friend of Superman, serum to cure lycanthropy, or my favorite….patient writer. I can’t wait for those other books, and any other future endeavors that you may partake in, good luck, dream well, safe paths.

  2. AdrianH

    Wow, not much I can add to that! Other than my hardcover is on it’s way, and I’ve nearly finished the ebook, and I’ve enjoyed it immensely.
    Thank you, Kate; I really can’t wait to see what you do next, which is more than a little exciting.
    BTW, is there going to be any sort of signing at all? Just that I need a week’s notice to take time off.

  1. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North | Sam Still Reading

    […] Finally, Claire North has outed herself recently. She’s not who I guessed (Ian McEwan), but you can find out more about her alter ego here. […]

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