What if your life had an ‘undo’ button?
Arlo Knott discovers he can rewind time – just by a minute or two – enough to undo any mistake, say the right thing or impress his friends with his uncanny predictions…
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 is too much to resist.
I’ve got a soft spot for books with crossover appeal. Fantasy novels which may take inspiration from other forms of media, or that generally feel just feel that little bit different. The Undoing of Arlo Knott is one such book. It’s magical, sure, but that magic is so low-key that it feels more like a general fiction book, and in the best possible way.
If you’ve read the blurb above, then you’ve probably already grasped the premise. After a silly mistake in Arlo’s childhood, one that he wishes he could undo, Arlo is left without a mother. Following on from that moment, Arlo finds that he has the ability to “undo”. To jump back 5 seconds, 10 seconds in time — always small amounts — to take back poorly considered words or actions. Of course, he can never undo the mistake he really wishes that he could.
This is a book that feels like a movie. In fact, in the early stages, this book reminded me of a sort of cross between About Time and Boyhood. It evolves beyond that, of course, and into something entirely its own. It does something that I adore: it fully explores the consequences of the concept in terms of both character and plot. Arlo isn’t just a normal boy who happens to have a magic power. Well… he is, but the magic changes who he is. He has a privilege that literally nobody else has, and that has consequences in terms of his personality and outlook on life.
By which I mean he can be a bit of an asshole. But, y’know, it’s easy to see why. And Heather Child does an amazing job of taking something so otherworldly, and such a privileged, sometimes-unlikable (and sometimes downright contemptible) protagonist, and still finding ways to make him seem vulnerable and empathetic.
Because, really, when you boil it all down, Arlo is a flawed human being who wants nothing more than to be a better person. Is there anything more relatable than that? Of course, the wanting of a thing isn’t necessary the same as being that thing. Throughout the novel his magic breeds a sort of oblivious selfishness in him that he has to constantly battle to recognise and overcome.
Arlo makes mistakes that will make you want to strangle him. His life becomes a sequence of trials and errors. He will replay a scenario multiple times to reach the optimal outcome (whether for himself or those that he cares about), and this includes things like getting the measure of a person or entering into a relationship. I’m sure I don’t need to spell out how unethical that is.
Of course, while to everyone else it looks like Arlo sails through life without a problem, that’s not really the case for him. For instance, if Arlo were to see his best friend run over by a bus, Arlo would have to relive that experience several times over until he found a scenario where he could save his friend. By that point, to the friend it’s just a close call. But to Arlo, he has just witnessed the same death a million times over. It doesn’t matter if it has been undone or not, it still leaves a mark. Scenarios like this, and the trauma that comes with them, are a major part of this book, and a major part of why I loved it. It explores its concept to the extreme, and it’s fantastic.
In terms of secondary characters, most of them are painted only in broad strokes. While this would usually be a criticism coming from me, in this case I actually think it may have been a deliberate decision in this instance. At least, it fits the themes of the story. Arlo spends so much time thinking about how he can undo things for his own benefit, that naturally he thinks about himself much more than he thinks about others. It’s like he’s locked in his own head and the windows to the outside world are foggy. He knows that others are there, of course, and he deeply cares for them, but unless they’re in his immediate line of sight… he can forget all about them. And nobody bears the brunt of this more than his older sister, who has her own struggles to deal with. She lost her mother too, after all.
The Undoing of Arlo Knott is a thought-provoking book that will stay with me for a long, long time. It’s written in a simple but accessible style, from the perspective of Arlo looking back on his life, but behind that simplicity are multiple layers of complexity. It drips with nostalgia in the early stages, and it is quite a happy book, but it’s sewn through with melancholy.
It takes such a simple premise, and its brilliance is in the way it explores the myriad complications that arise from it. What seems a simple slice-of-life story at the beginning turns into a messy and chaotic slice-of-life story at the end. And that’s sort of the point. Lives are complicated. Decisions and consequences are messy. There’s only so much control you can exercise over that, even with magic. A person who could have anything they want can still be unhappy.
I love this book. This might be a deeply personal thing, but I love it. It struck a chord with me. Arlo can be vulnerable and relatable, and he can be a complete, contemptible prick, but his journey will always stick with me. Heather Child has written something really amazing here, and if you like what you’ve heard so far, then I implore you to read it.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Orbit Books, in exchange for a fair and honest review.