The Undoing of Arlo Knott by Heather Child – Contemporary life with a fantastic twist


Arlo Knott has a talent that defies definition, and therefore understanding. Though painfully normal in every other way, with ambitions, an unfulfilled love, a troublesome sibling and a disappointing dad, Arlo’s secret comes to dominate and shape his life. A family tragedy triggers the realisation, in the most dramatic way possible, that Arlo can, with a small effort, reset time. That he can return to a point before an action, an incident, and do things differently, or ensure that things turn out less badly. This proves to be something he cannot or will not reveal, partly because it sounds so unlikely, defying explanation, and partly he wants to benefit from his unusual talent. His progress through school, university and life is affected by his talent, but he cannot use it as a blunt instrument. He reflects on the effect it has on others, on himself. He carries a burden of guilt, which does not lessen with his experiences. Rather, as he comes to depend on his ability, he becomes concerned on what he is really doing, the effect it has on other people. The complex web that he has to live by has an effect on his world view and his values, but he tries so hard to do his best, avoid trouble, appalled at what he could potentially do, what he may have done. When he experiments with his ability, he realises its limitations but pushes the boundaries. I was fascinated and pleased to be given the opportunity to read and review this book. 


The book begins with an account of Arlo’s childhood, on a significant day. Distracted for a moment, he fails to secure a ladder and so unwittingly starts a chain of events that will change both his life and that of his family. It is only when he seeks to deal with the effects of this incident that he discovers that he can undo the most significant of acts, simply by will. An accidental discovery, he begins to explore how he can use it to survive in school, finance his university career and influence people. A significant lashing out at fate which he reverses leads to a meeting which will transform not only his life but another unique person. He discovers that while he may be able to reverse things in his life, even flout the laws of safety and common sense, his relationships with those he loves are made even more difficult. His ambitions to do good are not straightforward, and complications always set in. Self doubt may be common among people, but his self doubt has an extra dimension, an extra level of complexity and guilt. 


This book carefully straddles fantasy and contemporary life, where common situations and tensions in relationships are added to by a unique element. Convoluted yet sensitively written, this is a book for our time in its range despite focusing on one man’s memories. It raises questions not only about a strange concept, but also about human motivation more generally. This is a special and powerful book of love, sadness and the determination to do good for whatever motive. Arlo is a distinctive character, but his inner monologue is a true reflection of the way that  we all think at times. Doubting what we do, why we do it and the effect of our behaviour on those around us is a contemporary concern for many if not most people. This sensitive and honest novel deserves to find a wide audience, and I recommend its distinctive voice and honesty.