1 August 2019

Review - The Undoing of Arlo Knott by Heather Child

Design by Ellen Rockell
The Undoing of Arlo Knott
Heather Child
Orbit, 1 August 2019
PB, e, 336pp

I'm grateful to Orbit and to Nazia in particular for a free advance copy of The Undoing of Arlo Knott to consider for review.

Following up the success of last year's Everything About You, which explored SF ideas about a future of virtual and augmented reality, Child returns with a more fantasy driven story, focussed on a central idea and its consequences: what if you could turn back time, undoing moments and unpicking mistakes?

Arlo Knott is introduced in childhood, a happy child whose life is about to change forever. After a shocking trauma, he discovers that he has a talent for going back and changing things - not, though, that event.

Child paints a convincing and sympathetic portrait of the boy, and then the the teenager and young man, Arlo. It's an impressive achievement, especially given that Arlo isn't a very likeable character. As he freely admits himself, he is self-centred, oblivious to the needs of others, and self-pitying. One of the clearest aspects of this novel is how, later admitting those failings, Arlo continues to embody them, if in subtler ways. The child and the teenager crave attention and approval (something that has roots both in that previously mentioned event, and in earlier loss - Arlo's father having vanished to the US in quest of an acting career) but the man... ah, the man graduates from using his talent to turn over casinos and scratchcard vendors for easy wins to stage magic, using it to underpin a mind-reading act. He swears there's no trickery even while admitting he's literally turning back time. And it's clearly not about money - it's a quest for adulation, and when the clapping ends, he dumps the stage act.

And so it goes, as Arlo manipulates his way through a succession of careers, and through relationships too. He earlier noted that he never used his "gift" as you might imagine a teenage boy would - though he seems to come pretty close - but when he fancies a girl it proves very useful to be able to backtrack on conversational deadness and reflect her own views and preferences back to her.

For much of the book, then, Arlo is something of a rat and it's only the growing entanglements of family, his girlfriend and the succession of - I'm not sure what word to use - victims, perhaps? - he leaves in his wake that (eventualy) gives him pause for thought. When it does happen, though, the trap that Child sets for Arlo is so clever and so wicked that, as I've said, one actually does sympathises.

This is a breathtaking book, notable not only for a high concept but also for the down to Earth and plausible interaction of Arlo with that and for the effect on his personality and development. We also get a very human take on relationships, family - including ageing, the father eventually coming back from the US for support with his dementia, spending his time, in a metaphor for the book as a whole, devising and building a labyrinthine board game which seems to have Arlo at hits heart. Arlo's stormy relationship with his sister also plays a large part, Child revealing her view of events fairly late in the book and transforming one's understanding of it when she does.

It's a great read, the various sections dealing with Arlo's different careers (self-aggrandising even when allegedly altruistic) keeping the main themes in sight while ringing the changes, so that the book never settles down into samey, soft-centredness but instead keeps surprising and changing the reader. I hesitate to use clichés like "unputdownable' but this is a book that is very easy to keep reading and reading.

And when it runs into its nail biting close... well, as my poor dogs, eating for their evening walk, found out earlier this evening, yes, I think it might even justify that phrase.

All in all a triumphant successor to Child't first book.

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