Having read the marvellous Everything About You earlier this year, I was intrigued by Heather Child’s second novel, The Undoing of Arlo Knott. Child is clearly a writer who doesn’t feel constrained by genre, and I found her second novel to be very different to her debut, but just as good.
WHAT IF 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 any 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.
I love the concept of this novel, in which the titular Arlo Knott develops the ability to reverse his last action, making it as though it never happened. I think it’s an idea that most people can relate to – I know that I’ve certainly said and / or done stupid things that I’ve immediately wished I could take back. That said, it is these situations from which we learn – those moments when we’ve said something without thinking teach us to be a little more wary next time around, and if you could just reverse those moments that don’t quite pan out as expected, you’d never learn the caution that comes from making those blunders. It’s an interesting quandary, and one that is brilliantly explored throughout this novel.
Arlo first discovers this ability as a teenager when it happens by accident and, with a little experimentation and practice, he finds that he is able to use this skill at will. This initially leads to some wonderfully comic moments as he uses this gift to chat up girls as well as taking the opportunity to kick the school bully in the nuts. He immediately undoes the action, making it so that the boy in question, nor any of their peers, is aware of it, yet Arlo gets the satisfaction of having undertaken the action without any kind of retribution. It’s a win-win situation, although I think that it also serves to highlight the loneliness of being unique – to have done something and to not be able to share it would make you more reserved around others, I think.
Arlo is an interesting character, and one who is surprisingly likeable despite his flaws. He is a bit of a jerk at times, and I found him to be self-centred and occasionally selfish, but I did like him – most of the time – despite this. He seemed like an ordinary person, with the one exception of this very extraordinary ability. The reader sees Arlo grow from a boy of thirteen, following him through school and university and into adult life, with everything that brings. I loved the way in which Child explored how such an ability might be used, and while Arlo is not shy of using his ability to his own advantage, he does later come to use it to help others as well. It sets him up on an unusually varied path through life as he uses this ability throughout his personal life as well as the various careers he undertakes.
The Undoing of Arlo Knott is a hugely enjoyable novel with a brilliantly original concept. Fair warning – some readers may find it frustrating that the how and why of his ability aren’t explained, but if you can get around this, it’s a brilliantly story and a thought-provoking read.
The Undoing of Arlo Knott was published in August by Orbit, and is available as in paperback and digital formats.