The Effect of Living Backwards by Heidi Julavits

When my life flashed before me
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The Independent Culture

Imagine if, as I started to write this review, I decided to start telling you about the significance of the word "review" in my life, or a childhood experience that may or may not influence the outcome of what I say. And can you trust what I say, or am I projecting the persona of another self into this piece?

Confused? Well, then you may not get on very well with The Effect of Living Backwards, Heidi Julavits' follow-up to The Mineral Palace. Living Backwards, essentially, is about a plane hijacking, told from the point of view of Alice, who's travelling to Morocco with her sister Edith, for Edith's wedding. It won't take you long to realise that their relationship was dysfunctional enough already: the more pleasant "favours" they do for each other include Alice playing look-out for Edith's sex sessions with strangers.

And their relationship is further strained when Alice begins to feel an attachment to the (is he or isn't he?) hostage negotiator, Pitcairn, and Edith begins to get a bit too close to one of the hijackers (but is this just a cunning escape tactic...?).

To muddle things further, the story switches from Alice's first-person narrative to "shame" chapters ("Mother's Shame", etc), which reveal an episode in the characters' lives (in their first-person narrative). It's quite a distraction, because the action on board is generally more interesting than these bizarre life-changing experiences, which don't add much to the story anyway, as the characters' roles in the hijacking are left deliberately unclear.

Julavits also has a tendency to wander off on tangents, usually episodes from Alice's childhood. These reflect Alice's perhaps untrustworthy, dreamy narrative, but at times I just wanted to skip these bits and crack on with the on-board tension and the fascinating ethical dilemmas set by the hijackers, such as deciding which of two strangers more deserves to live. And it's Julavits' engaging style of writing and quick-fire dialogue in episodes such as this that keeps you reading to the end, although I'd advise doing it in one sitting, or you may literally lose the plot.