September 28, 2005

Backwards and Forwards

42. The Long View, by Elizabeth Jane Howard
This book is written backwards, so that each chapter is set five or six years earlier than the previous one, and the reader traces back the development both of the central character Antonia, and of her shifting relationship with her husband. This wonderful technique makes you question other more conventionally written books to ask whether the character is the same person at the beginning, as at the end. It’s rather like watching a film on rewind, starting from resignation and weariness, and tracking back scene by scene to the naivety of first love. Such a clever book, which I need to read again now that I know what happens in the beginning.
43. The Hundred Secret Senses, by Amy Tan
This is cute in places. No, cute is the wrong word: startlingly insightful on the death of relationships. It adds some modern rural China to the usual tales of the historic east, and the standard comparison with growing up in the west. I feel that I may have read enough Amy Tan for now.
On his deathbed [in modern-day america], Olivia’s father reveals the existence of another daughter, abandoned many years ago when he left China, and extracts a promise to take care of her. Kwan sees dead people. She also remembers her previous life [in historic China] in great detail, which is why she works so hard to keep Simon and Olivia together after their marriage goes stale. A trip to China open’s Olivia’s cynical eyes and she discovers that the world is not a place, but what’s inside her heart. Then they mostly live happily ever after.
This is perhaps the least profound of all the Amy Tan novels I have read, which is a shame, because she has great content here, and I think it could have been twice the book.


3 thoughts on “Backwards and Forwards

  1. Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis is also written backwards, but by a non-involved observing consciousness piggybacking on the mind and senses of the main character as he moves backwards through his life from his death to his birth. I thought it was a bit gimmicky to be honest, and the EJH approach seems much more grounded. I might give it a go, so thanks for the review!

  2. My favourite Seinfeld episode is shot backwards with every few minutes it jumping back in time and the subtitle saying “X mins/hours earlier”. It can be a great way to tell a story if not overused.

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