The Undoing of Arlo Knott by Heather Child
I would like to thank Orbit for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review
Publisher – Orbit
Price - £8.99 paperback £4.99 Kindle eBook
Published – Out Now
What is your life had an ‘undo’ button?
Arlo Knott develops the mysterious ability to reverse his last action. It makes him able to experience anything, to charm any woman and impress ay friend. His is a life free of mistakes, a life without regret.
But second chances aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. As wonderful as his new life is, a mistake in Arlo’s traumatic childhood still haunts him and the temptation to undo, undo and keep undoing could be too much to resist.
We’ve all been told that our mistakes in the long run help us develop. Learning from what we did wrong in life should protect us in the future by preventing the same mistakes? But what if you could always rewind that mistake and choose the right path? In this brilliant and beautifully written novel from Heather Child we meet a man who over the course of his life has learnt to use that ability, but it doesn’t mean he is not unscarred by his experiences.
Our narrator is Arlo Knott telling us the story of his life. It starts in tragedy as Arlo loses his mother in a tragic accident. He and his sister Erin are sent to stay with his mother as his unresponsive father is living in the US trying to get a film career. Arlo becomes an angry teenager raging at what he has lost but in the course of this experience he realises he can rewind time. Initially just a few seconds but as he gets older minutes, hours and eventually days. He really could be the man who has everything, but can this make him happy?
For me the whole success of this novel is how Arlo comes alive in the narration. Importantly this is not a tale told in real-time it is instead Arlo telling us about key events that took place during several years of his life. This is an adult looking back at the person(s) they were and being able to both explain and condemn their actions. As such we are allowed to both like Arlo and at times stare in horror at his occasional selfishness. We are there right from the start when he loses his mother in a horrible accident. The scene where he as a young child realises his mother is going to die is beautifully heart-breaking. But we also see where his channelled anger at the world is going and we cheer him on as he strikes back at his school bullies. We see as he ages and then becomes a young student that he is still carrying that anger and as a young man in his twenties that version of Arlo uses everything for personal gain whether that be money, jobs or to be successful with any woman he wants to romance. He is the worst over privileged man you can imagine at that point but crucially Child uses the voice of the older Arlo to explore why he behaves that way and he himself condemning his behaviour and importantly owning his errors rather than just always blaming his childhood. This is a great exploration for why some men are the way they are – not justifying it but explaining how they act and think.
There is a fascinating exploration of masculinity here as Knott is angry teen; privileged student and in his twenties often self-involved. We see other characters without this power using this too (a sobering university scene where he realises the very rich also don’t have to worry about mistakes if they are rich enough to never suffer long from them) and Knott as a working-class young man gets a chance to review the world of fame and fortune from then on differently. At one point becoming a very renown stage magician. But what I liked about this was Knott’s growing realisation that the world didn’t revolve around him.
Because Arlo has to live the other timeline to know what the consequences are, he starts to see what happens to everyone when things go wrong and tries to fix it. This mentally ages him, and we see growing maturity. At the same time though we see a man enjoying that he can take risks without the joy of losing. That can be gambling but as we get older see him drawn towards policing, mine-clearing and finally hostage negotiations. The outside world sees a man confident in his abilities so trusts him to do the right thing based on reputation and deliberately enigmatic presence but in reality, Arlo is just scrambling around myriad futures trying to find the right path to a win. There is a fascinating and very powerful sequence where Arlo has to try and help a woman stop killing herself and every time, he fails she will die. We can see him grow up as the scenes keep ending in tragedy and by the end, he realises he needs to do better. Is he just a very confident mediocre white guy with one special gift or is there more to him than wanting to win? The novel doesn’t like to give easy answers and that makes it a thoughtful character exploration. A growing thread of plot that Arlo’s actions will always have consequences for those he chooses to save which really comes loose in the finale and makes us think carefully about our own enjoyment of seeing his powers in action.
To aid this we see several key characters who surround his life. There is his fascinating older sister Erin who is clearly the intelligent academic aiming to be a physicist but also suffering from a lack of joy and ability to relax in contrast with her sibling. Their relationship is one of the best portrayals of an over-competitive brother and sister relationships mixing affection with an almost perverse ability to make the other angry with each other but watching Arlo realise what his sister has had to deal with is eye-opening. Finally, there is Sabra a student he meets in bizarre circumstances and while initially he sees her as a just another future conquest, he finds someone who gets and acts like him on a level he’s not encountered before. However, two risk-takers together are not always going to be the best combination. Again, the novel is great at exploring consequences of action and even the ‘right’ paths that Arlo chooses can have some outcomes even he cannot easily fix, and they change how he behaves himself. There is an overarching theme of taking responsibility and we see Arlo battling against a desire to prove he is a good person - as seen in some of his later career choices and the temptation to just do what he wants as he never has to pay the cost for long. Eventually though this may finally be too much.
I really liked how the novel changes styles to fit Arlo’s developing personality. Childhood scenes feel more idyllic and simpler; his twenties feel a world of superficial gloss and showbusiness while his later roles allows Child to do tense London police drama and finally global thriller in a tense hostage stand-off in Thailand. The style fits Arlo’s personality at the time and keeps the flow of an ever-changing personality.
I was a huge fan of Child’s debut Everything About You a fascinating and intelligent thriller that looks at how we live with technology and where it may take us. This provides an equally smart look at how people take responsibility for our action and explores concepts of guilt, toxic masculinity and learning to take account of your actions. This tale really reminds me of the authors such as Claire North who take a high concept idea and then run with it exploring the consequences of that simple change to reality. One of my favourite reads so far this year and one I think you should be giving a try if you like character based intelligent fantasy. I will be intrigued what Child has next to offer us in their future work.