Does Alice really hate her sister, or is that love? Was she really enrolled in grad school, or was that an elaborate hoax? Is this really a hijacking, or is it merely the effect of living backwards?
Following her acclaimed debut, The Mineral Palace, Heidi Julavits presents a quirky, compelling new novel about two sisters, a bizarre event, and the elusive nature of truth.
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The Effect of Living Backwards, Heidi Julavits's second novel, is a mess--but a good mess, an ambitious mess. The title is taken from Through the Looking-Glass, and Julavits's narrator--named Alice--certainly wanders into a perplexing wonderland. She and her sister Edith are flying to Morocco, where Edith is to be married. The plane is hijacked by a charismatic, chubby blind man named Bruno. After a time, the hijacking appears to be an extended moral case study: Bruno forces his hostages to consider whether they would give their own life to save another. The hijacking, it turns out, may or may not be real; Bruno may or may not be blind; Alice may or may not be falling in love with Pitcairn, the hostage negotiator who's supposed to save them all. As she unspools her black comedy, Julavits displays a wildly discursive style; the book can seem overwritten. But as her plot gains momentum, so too does Julavits's writing, and her tortuous sentences begin to make sense: they reflect the awkward situation of the heroine. After a supper of candy and punch, Alice tells us she and her fellow hostages "suffered extreme intestinal discomfort, which made the lavatories more unspeakably filth-ridden, and tempers, whose foulness is always proportional to the decrepitude of a WC, began to fester." On one level, this is an unhappy sentence; on another, its very contortions are funny. So it is with The Effect of Living Backwards, which, in its patience-trying elegance, recalls the underrated novelist Nancy Lemann. This is a brave novel, aggressively intelligent and aggressively silly all at once. --Claire DedererAbout the Author:
Heidi Julavits has published short fiction in Esquire, Story, Zoetrope, McSweeney’s, and The Best American Short Stories 1999. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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