When a Story is Best Told Backwards
Samantha Harvey on the Melancholy of Reverse Narratives
When we listen to stories as children our whole being can rest on one small tremoring question—And then . . . ? When we watch TV we return after the ad-break because of that question, and it’s why we turn the page when we read; there’s something on the next page or on the pages beyond—however dramatic or subtle—that we want to find out. And then is the engine of all storytelling.
Nestled within that impulse to know what comes next is the understanding of cause and effect—of a giving rise to b giving rise to c. This is our very experience of living. We live in what appears to us as forward-moving time, of cause followed by effect, of traceable paths from this moment to the next, and perhaps we’re most confounded and unnerved by life when those paths are only dimly traceable, or not traceable at all—when we just don’t understand how or why something has come to be.
Given how fundamental the and then is to storytelling, I was a little deflated and concerned when my last novel came to me quite fully in reverse order. My novels have never come to me as fully-formed as this, or as ready to be written—so I knew I had to grasp what was given. But to write in reverse order?
I’ve grappled overtly with time in my previous novels, I think because I’m preoccupied, baffled by the way time impacts us, the way our experience of it is so changeable, the way it marches forward while our memories accumulate teeteringly, unreliably, in its wake. The novel, in its beautiful elasticity, can explore all of that. For a novel to play around with the conventions of time is almost stock-in-trade—it can splice time, shuffle it, flash back or forwards, jump centuries in a single sentence or dwell for 200 pages on a single moment. It has no budgeting limits if it wants to change its set, suddenly, from 500 BC to 1953 to 2018. It has no logistical barriers. “Now” is a moveable feast. It can stretch and shrink moments as it wants.
But, its narrative is powered all the same by that one propulsive question: And then? So what are the consequences when that narrative is told backwards—when the then we impulsively yearn for has already happened?
When I embarked on writing this novel, I discovered one vital thing very early on: the question And then? does in fact, of course, have just as much currency in a reverse narrative as in a forward one. The reader’s impulse to know what is going to happen next is unswerving and undeterred by direction of travel. The reader wants to know what will happen next in the narrative; whether that next is the next day or the day before is actually of little consequence. It’s about what happens on page 11 if you’re on page 10, or in chapter 4 if you’re on chapter 3—just as it would be in any other story.
The thing that changes is nuance, emphasis. Let’s say I know in chapter 3 that somebody dies. When, in chapters 4 and 5, I come to witness their illness and fight for survival, my And then? question is no longer “Will she die?” but “How did she come to die?” The emphasis shifts from what to how/why. Or, since what happens is always, irresistibly a question on the reader’s lips, it’s perhaps better to say that the motivation for the question shifts—what now propels it is the how and why. The curiosity is relieved of its task of finding out what the outcome is, and can expend itself instead on how and why it came about.The reverse narrative reclaims some clarity. It puts emphasis on tracing back what has seemed untraceable.
I was struck when reading Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing, for example, by how urgent and compulsive its reverse narrative is. The novel has two parallel stories which begin from the same present moment, one running forwards and one backwards. Interestingly, it’s the one going backwards that really grips and suspends the reader—the one that illuminates who the protagonist is, how she’s come to be where she is, and why present events might be happening. There’s nothing static in its revelation of the how and why; each scene is hot on the trail of the last, and there’s a dynamic, destructive force in the zipping backwards through scenes, each one torn up as it cedes to its predecessor. Everything is undone, and the undoing is fast and unsettling.
With a different pace, but with a similar compulsive momentum, is The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. This complex, beautiful novel doesn’t zip, it’s pensive and languorous as it takes its four main characters back in three episodes from 1947 to 1941, from post-war to early-war London. But like Wyld’s novel, the hunger to know who these people are, and the how and why of their lives, generates a world that is fiercely alive with their growing presence, and with the gradual piecing together of the factors and influences that have made them who we know them, thus far, to be.
To my mind, this brings an almost singular satisfaction. If some of the most confounding times of our lives arise when we lose clear sight of how a situation came to be—what caused me to become unwell, what induced my husband to leave me, etc.—then the reverse narrative reclaims some clarity. It puts emphasis on tracing back what has seemed untraceable. It has a forensic quality, a power of retrospective illumination, of hindsight supplied by the reader who now knows more than the characters to whom the events are happening.
Yet, although the backwards narrative is fiercely alive in this respect, it isn’t alive with possibility, as with most stories, but with impossibility. There is no future available; there might be hope, but nowhere for that hope to land and take seed. When we ask And then?, we look to the thing that comes next and find that what’s next has already been. The “next” is never a new thing, something that can change the course of events. It can only elucidate events. In that dead-endedness is what I experience as a kind of melancholy; the next moment or happening has no creative, generative power, only a power to retrace and reflect. The reader is part-detective, part-archaeologist, part faithful witness to a series of events that can no longer be influenced. Everything we come to understand is understood too late.
Redemption plays a role in this feeling of melancholia too. On the face of it the reverse narrative invites hope, because in going backwards it can hint at a kind of return to innocence. But it invites and denies hope in equal measure. This is starkly true of both Wyld’s and Waters’ novels. The Night Watch finds its characters in an exhausted, bombed-out and bankrupt Britain, themselves exhausted, jaded and ghostlike. It leaves them six years prior, more vigorous and purposeful, unknowing of the fact that the war would drag itself on for another four spectacularly violent years. Jake, the narrator of All the Birds, Singing, concludes her painful story at home with her family, and with the optimistic conviction that “I will always be here.” My own novel, too, narrated by a parish priest, ends at a place of open possibility and with the priest’s consoling thought that all the things he imagines might go wrong, as a result of the death of one of his parishioners, will not come to pass. But of course, they will. We know that they do. The return to innocence we’re shown by going backwards is really an accentuated expression of its loss.
This makes me think, too, of Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow. In most other novels that use reverse chronology the novel is told backwards while events unfold in a normal causal way. You are hungry, you eat, you are full. In Amis’s world everything is reversed—every grain of life. You are full, you eat, you are hungry. In this way, the protagonist’s life unspools from old age to birth, everyday events made strange by the reversal of cause and effect. (I know no other novel that makes such a comprehensive attempt at this reversal; Philip K. Dick’s Counter Clock World does to an extent, but more playfully and patchily.)
There is a redemption at work in Time’s Arrow—a grim, uncomfortable one. The protagonist, Odilo, is a doctor who assists in the Holocaust. The reverse narrative means that, rather than assist in murder, he heals and restores life. When he arrives at Auschwitz, the prisoners there are brought into being, not exterminated. The narrator of the novel isn’t Odilo himself but an elusive presence observing events without understanding, and there’s something very powerful in this device—why, wonders the narrator, do people feel hungry when they’ve eaten? Why do they sit in a waiting room after they’ve seen a doctor? This unfathomable behavior seems to mirror the senselessness of the Holocaust; why do people behave this way? While the novel’s chronology begs that question on every page, it also forces Odilo into humane action, it negates his monstrousness, and it eventually negates him, by rendering him unborn. And having done that, it can purify and atone.
Although ultimately not so, since at the end the narrator understands, finally, that time has been in reverse, and understands who Odilo is and what he has done—and that it cannot be undone. This collapse of redemption in the backwards narrative, so overt in Time’s Arrow, is, I think, inevitable. We know that Evie Wyld’s Jake will not “always be here,” because we’ve seen what happens to her. We know my priest’s consolation is an empty one.
The reverse narrative leverages the reader’s normal aspirations of suspense and propulsion, of hope, of redemption, of interest in the and then—it doesn’t deny any of these impulses, in fact indulges them all, only to show how flimsy our hopes can be, and yet how robustly we can’t stop hoping.
In the inverting and thwarting of my hopes and readerly impulses, there emerges in my reading experience something which is deeper and more interesting than the mere desire to know what happens next, and in the desire for what happens next to give some form of closure. As a reviewer of The Night Watch says of its characters, “It is we, not they, who feel older, wiser and sadder at the novel’s end.” This is true. The book is put down but far from finished. It lives on, and its aliveness is in all the things that are no longer possible, the lives we know and comprehend so well but which have no forwards motion, like a wheel spinning without its axle.
In the first line of The Night Watch Waters writes: “So this, said Kay to herself, is the sort of person you’ve become: a person whose clocks and wrist-watches have stopped.” And indeed, from there her story does stop. Everything else is history—and so the novel begins.