THE UNDOING OF ARLO KNOTT / AUTHOR: HEATHER CHILD / PUBLISHER: ORBIT / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Imagine if you had your own mental ‘delete’ button that allowed to you take back the last thing you said, the last thing you did, allowing you to do something different, something better, something that enabled you to right a wrong or, at the very least, to say or do something more apposite or appropriate. We’ve all secretly wished we could do things differently. But Arlo Knott discovers, at the age of thirteen and in the aftermath of a terrible family tragedy, that he can indeed rewrite his own recent past.
Fans of Matt Haig’s incredible 2017 novel How to Stop Time will find themselves on familiar territory in Heather Child’s intricate, layered story of a man trying to come to terms with himself and his strange power and not always doing the right thing at the right time - no matter how many chances he gives himself to put things right. Child explores similar themes to Haig as she looks at the nature of humanity, the purpose of existence and how destiny can be a cruel, shallow and extremely random mistress. At first Arlo’s ‘power’ (it’s not time travel, he can change the immediate past, not only for himself but for those around him and, to an extent, the world) is a toy he uses to confound the school bully, to help him top up his University grant and to turn his Graduation ceremony from a drunken disaster into a minor triumph. It’s here that he makes his first potentially life-changing deletion as he engineers a meeting between himself and would-be violinist Sabra and the two embark on a passionate, sometimes volatile relationship. But Arlo’s life hits the buffers and for a while he makes a name for himself as a stage magician before joining the police and becoming a respected negotiator who, for some reason, has an extraordinary success rate.
Perhaps what’s most curious about the book is that Arlo himself isn’t an especially likeable - and possibly not even particularly reliable - narrator. He’s hugely egotistical, often petulant and, in the end, driven to distraction by his power, its potential, and the unthinking chaos it’s inflicted upon his life. But Heather Child manages, against the odds, to turn him into a sympathetic and rather tragic figure, her often beautiful and poignant prose papering over the cracks in his character and making us root for him even though we might think he’s his own worst enemy. A sequence in Thailand involving a prolonged hostage negotiation slows the pace a little and the ending might be a bit ambiguous and metaphysical for some tastes but this is an extraordinary, thought-provoking, clever and even slightly uneasy work which sits alongside Haig’s book as one of the most intelligent and readable high concept British novels of the last ten years.