Orbit | 2019 (1 August) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book
Arlo Knott discovers, in the most appalling and traumatic circumstances, that he has an astonishing skill, almost a superhuman gift – he can reverse his last action; he can actually turn back time. This ability transforms Arlo’s life in every way and his personality undergoes a whirlpool of emotions, life choices and decisions, as he uses this skill for all kinds of purposes. As he learns to manipulate his talent, Arlo realises just how many ways there are in which he can use it to get rich or, perhaps more importantly to him, to win admiration and respect. But then he also considers its wider uses and his responsibilities – that he can use it to save lives, to become a hero. But what Arlo wants more than anything is to love and be loved and it’s there that sadness lies as he discovers what is genuinely important and the reality of his insignificance to change what matters.
The Undoing of Arlo Knott is a truly extraordinary novel. In big ways it’s speculative science fiction as we watch Arlo manipulate time and recent events for various reasons. All of which raises the huge question of what would we do if we could undo an event, reverse an action or word that we regret, save someone we love. But how much would you change? How far back would you go? Where would you draw the line as life’s knots grow increasingly complex and entangled?
There is so much going on in this novel. It’s absolutely packed with life as Arlo explores every aspect of his gift while still being traumatised by the event that triggered it and yet still trying to make a future for himself. The Undoing of Arlo Knott is extremely entertaining and lively as Arlo pursues so many personas, some of them outrageous. And all the time he is watched by those he loves and cares for.
Arlo Knott dominates the novel, as you’d expect, and we grow close to him as he tells his story in his own words. But there are other significant characters, too, each of whom plays an important role in Arlo’s life as he explores his relationship with them and tries to help them. But sometimes in helping you can make things worse. Some things cannot be undone. Arlo is an appealing character as he discovers the many different consequences of undoing an act and realises how dangerous, terrifying and whimsical life really is.
And so the novel investigates relationships and the nature of love in so many forms. Arlo’s family is fascinating. They’re almost just out of reach. Arlo defines himself by love and with it comes guilt. Heather Child explores this with such sensitivity and insight.
This is a brilliantly written and clever novel. It shocks and amuses and it has so many twists and unexpected developments. I love speculative fiction and with The Undoing of Arlo Knott we see the genre at its very best.