OK, this is the third attempt at this review. Both previous attempts lost when stupidly closing the browser mid-edit.
[Mild Spoiler Alert - Nothing much more than you would find in the ‘jacket’ description on Amazon.]
I’ve read some weird stuff over the years, but this has to be one of the strangest books I’ve ever read - simply because it tells its story backwards.
My son recommended it to me as his girlfriend read it as part of her english literature degree. He read it in order to knowledgeably proof-read the essay she subsequently wrote. You can see why it was on the reading list, because it’s a brilliantly technical piece of writing. I’m still not sure if I enjoyed it or not, but as I’m compelled to write about it here, I guess it has had an impact.
When I say it tells its story backwards, it’s not simply a Benjamin Button affair where events progress normally, but ageing reverses.
No, in Time’s Arrow everything book happens backwards. Birds cheap backwards, words and sentences come out backwards, prostitutes give money to clients after sex and shit makes its way back into bodies on the toilet each morning.
You can’t relax and assimilating what is going on is quite a challenge. Or at least it was for this reader. You have to read a passage, think it through, consider what events would have been like told the other way, and then finally you start to understand the flow of the narrative - and all of that before you start to consider the emotions or motivations of the characters.
It’s actually quite tiring - pehaps why I don’t know if I enjoyed the book.
Dialogue is the most difficult part. Words in sentences appear in the correct order, but the sentence are in reverse order. Amis has done very well here as he has chosen dialogue that actually reads ‘well’ both ways, and it’s not until you’ve read it all that you realise what is going on - usually requiring you to scan the dialogue in reverse to see the flow of the conversation.
The voice of the book is also unusual. As you might expect, the book opens with the death of the main character - Tod Friendly, sees him come back to life on the operating table, and then follows his ‘recuperation’, recovery and then examines the rest of his life - told backwards.
It’s never explicitly explained who the narrator is, but it becomes ‘clear’ that it is an inner voice in Tod’s mind. It is Tod, but it isn’t Tod.
Like the reader, the narrator has to come to terms with things happening backwards and ‘he’ struggles to work out what is going on too. He also can’t communicate with Tod - he too, like us, is an observer and he feels helpless as he watches the other Tod doing things he shouldn’t.
By the end of the book, you’re left suspecting that this might be a part of Tod’s psyche that had been locked away due to some bad shit he’d done earlier in his life.
And yes, Tod did some bad shit. You follow his life as a doctor in the US, back through his emigration to the US from Europe, his changing his name from his native German, his hiding from something in the countryside of Italy, and through to the time he spent as a doctor in the death camps of Auschwitz and beyond.
We learn that Tod was part of the medical team at Auschwitz where we see him doing great work - bringing Jews back to life, helping to extract poisons from their bodies, etc.
Ironically, and undoubtedly intentionally on the part of the author, seeing the evil events at Auschwitz told backwards to achieve happy outcomes actually has more impact. Your brain has to take in the narrative, reverse it and consider the implication.