Expect to be confused when you begin Heidi Julavits' imaginative second novel, The Effect of Living Backwards. Even the author warns of the challenges ahead for readers. On the frontispiece, she quotes a passage from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass in which the Queen tells Alice that "the effect of living backwards. . . always makes one a little giddy at first." Like Julavits' narrator, you will find yourself wondering what is appearance and what is reality.
Julavits looks to both the present and future in The Effect Living Backwards. The plot revolves around two sisters, good girl Alice and slutty Edith, who are flying from Casablanca to Melilla when hijackers take over their Moroccan Airlines flight.
The comic back-and-forth between the fiercely competitive sisters keeps the story interesting, since each feels a need to show her particular power. With Edith, it's sexual; with Alice, it's a kind of social-worker goodness and dependability. How well the sisters know each other's weak spots shows up in the way they aim their shots. "It seems as if you've lost your spark," Alice says sweetly to Edith. Momentarily, the soon-to-be-married sister is seducing the flight steward and soliciting bets on how long he will last, sexually.
This often outrageous book alternates between chapters narrated by Alice detailing the sometimes tedious events of the terrorist hijacking, and chapters comprised of highly inventive "shame stories," in which individuals, either on the hijacked plane or closely connected to them, tell how they came to be who they are. Bordering on absurdity, these shame stories together create an appealing and sometimes hilarious black comedy.
The prologue, which is set at a time after the hijacking, finds Alice interviewing to attend the International Institute for Terrorist Studies in Lucerne and having even her simplest beliefs about who she is brought into question. "What if your childhood was all a big misunderstanding?" the professor asks her. And, of her recollections: "How can you be so certain?" By the epilogue, certainty is left behind, but the future is not without hope.