book-reviews

Time's Arrow

by Martin Amis

Rating: ★★★★★

Time's Arrow (or The Nature of the Offence) is a book about a life lived backwards, from the perspective of a secondary consciousness trapped inside an old man's head. The book opens with him being brought to life at the hands of doctors, slowly regaining control of his body under their ministrations, before heading home to life out a life of slowly-improving health in retirement. He meets lovers with bitter, tearful exchanges and gradually improves their relationship before they inevitably slip away. As a doctor, he is a cruel and powerful figure who pays people to be brutally injured by his ministrations.

The secondary consciousness, who seems inclined to think forwards, is an excellent narrative voice, taking on a sort of powerless commentary role regarding the direction of the life he is observing. Perceiving only what his host perceives, and unable to penetrate his thoughts, the narrator's moral judgements of the world around him - and his forgetful host - are both intriguing and at times amusingly absurd, and for this contribution alone the novel would be laudable as thought-provoking.

But there is more ('ware, spoilers). His host has some secret which haunts his dreams. As he gets younger and stronger, he eventually heads to New York, hurriedly grabbing a new identity on arrival. Sometimes he courts women by performing reverse-abortions on them. He boards a ship to Europe, where he lives for a while in Portugal, buying gold, before boarding a steamer to Italy then working his way north to Germany. This carefully procured gold is to be handed out as part of a great humanitarian work at a place called Auswitzch, where he works to bring people back to life in a variety of ways before integrating them into German society.

The reverse life format is very key here, as first of all you feel for the tragedy of the old man's life, the small sorrows that haunt him. You are, importantly, unaware that he is German, unaware that WW2 will feature as you get to know (in a reverse sense) this person. Then you see (through the temporally and thus morally reversed perspective of the narrator) the events of Auswitzch in close detail, you comprehend that this man would be described by many as a monster. The format speaks boldly of how this man is still a human being.

The backwards-flowing narrative is somewhat disorienting - I came out of it with my brain slightly askew - but the sense of mystery it brings really makes the story one of those you don't want to put down. The bizarre descriptions of the everyday in reverse are entertaining, the tragic opening heart-stirring, the lurid sex life titillating, the moral backwardsness intriguing. I would heartily recommend this to any number of people.