By Maggie James
A novel told backwards!
A while back, I wrote a post about novels with unusual structures (you can read it here), examining books such as B S Johnson's 'The Unfortunates', which consists of twenty-seven chapters that can be read in any order. As a novelist, I'm fascinated by examples of authors stretching the boundaries of what's possible with fiction. Last week, I picked up from the library another novel with an intriguing premise: Jeffery Deaver's 'The October List'.
What's unusual about it? Well, the story is told in reverse - sounds weird, I know! The index begins with chapter chapter thirty-six, the story working back through time over the last two days to the first chapter. In his foreword, Deaver explains that he became captivated with the idea of reverse chronology after listening to a radio discussion about Stephen Sondheim's musical 'Merrily We Roll Along', which uses the same idea. Deaver says:
'I began to wonder if it was possible for a thriller writer to pull off a backward-told story that was filled with the cliffhangers, surprises and twists and turns that are, to me, the epitome of good crime fiction. The task of course, is to present the twist before giving the facts that lead up to it and still make the surprise thrilling. It's like telling a joke's punch line first, yet still making the audience laugh as hard as if they'd heard the gag in its proper order.'
Part brilliance, part ho-hum
So does Deaver succeed? Yes and no, and that reflects the range of reviews I've read about the book on Amazon. For the majority of the novel I wasn't that impressed. The characters lacked depth, Deaver giving only the barest details about them, and the writing failed to grab me. Along the way, there are surprises, but no major thrills or twists. In addition, the ending of the opening chapter (number thirty-six, which appears first in the book as this is a story told in reverse) would have been weak had the plot been conventionally ordered, not delivering the final punch thriller readers expect. Whoever reviewed the book for The Sunday Times appears to have the same reaction, saying:
'Even halfway through, it seems possible that Deaver has been defeated by the mind-boggling technical challenge of delivering surprises in back-to-front time.'
Towards the end, however, everything changes, and I found myself gripped by the twists that Deaver throws into the mix. So does our friend from The Sunday Times:
'After the reverse journey reaches the couple's first meeting, his (Deaver's) gamble is thoroughly vindicated by a series of twists in which he resembles a conjuror who each time seems to have performed his final trick, but then tops it.'
My reaction as well! The final two chapters are particularly gripping, delivering surprises that perhaps I should have seen coming but didn't. By the end, the last part of the book left me thinking, 'Wow!', as well as unsure how to sum it up as a whole. 'The October List' is, by its very nature, plot-driven yet that's no excuse for poorly drawn characters or pedestrian writing. Yet I'm filled with admiration for any novelist who attempts such an ambitious task. Could you conceive of writing a novel backwards?! Deaver says in his foreword that 'The October List' was more challenging than anything he'd previously written - hardly surprising!
Have you read 'The October List?'
I'd be interested to hear what other people think. What's your opinion of 'The October List'? Do you, like one five-star Amazon reviewer, consider it 'brilliantly executed' with 'more surprises than you can shake a stick at'? Or do you side with the one-star reviewer who says, cuttingly, 'An intriguing idea wasted'? Leave a comment and let me know!
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