Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1991, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow depicts the life of a Nazi war criminal in reverse order, and asks big questions about destiny and morality 

Whether you’re new to Time’s Arrow or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide.

Written by Emily Facoory

Publication date and time: Published


Dr Tod T. Friendly has just died. Then, after weeks spent recovering in hospital, he is sent home to his affable, melting-pot, primary-colour existence in suburban America.

From the fresh-cut lawns of his retirement to the hustle of New York, and then the boat back to war-torn Europe, Friendly carries with him a secret. Trapped in his body from grave to cradle, Friendly’s consciousness can only watch as he struggles to make sense of the good doctor’s most ambitious project yet – the final solution.

In Time’s Arrow events occur in a reverse chronology, as time races into the past and the main character becomes younger and younger. Former – or soon-to-be – Nazi, Dr Friendly, is possessed of two separate voices, one running backward from his death, the other running forward, in a vain attempt to flee his inescapable past.

Martin Amis’ daring, inventive investigation of a war criminal’s life propels him backwards, towards an appalling past.

Time's Arrow

The main characters

Dr Tod T. Friendly / Odilo Unverdorben

Dr Friendly, or Odilo Unverdorben, as he’s originally known, is the novel’s protagonist, with the book following the events of his life in reverse order. Having just died from a heart attack, he is brought back to life and grows younger as the details around his experiences come to light, including his time working at Auschwitz. But because time is flowing backwards, Unverdorben’s actions, rather than murderous, are life-giving.

The narrator / the entity

The narrator experiences the world backwards, although is fully aware that time is supposed to flow the other way. He exists as a separate entity from Unverdorben and cannot control him, but can tap into his emotions and appears to share the protagonist’s body. Mostly an observer, the narrator is sometimes a participant in the book’s events, and is unaware of the protagonist’s crimes.

Uncle Pepi

Uncle Pepi is based on Dr Josef Mengele, a Nazi doctor who was known as the ‘Angel of Death’, conducting horrific experiments at Auschwitz. Uncle Pepi serves as Unverdorben’s mentor, as Unverdorben assists him at the camp.

About the author

Martin Amis was one of the most acclaimed and widely discussed novelists of his generation. The son of Kingsley Amis, who won the 1986 Booker Prize, he was twice nominated for the prize: Time’s Arrow was shortlisted in 1991, while Yellow Dog was longlisted in 2003. He won the Somerset Maugham Award for his debut novel, The Rachel Papers, in 1973, and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his memoir Experience. In 2008, the Times named him one of the 50 greatest writers since 1945. Amis’s other notable works include Money, London Fields and Dead Babies. A contemporary of Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes and Kazuo Ishiguro, Amis was part of an exciting and high-profile literary set that transformed the publishing landscape in the 1980s.

Born in Oxford, he spent his final years in the United States and died in May 2023. The day before his death, he was awarded a knighthood in the King’s first official birthday honours.

Portrait of Martin Amis.

What the critics said

Julie Parsons, The Irish Times

‘How to write a novel about the Holocaust. Do what Amis does. Take away the logic, the reasoning. “Here there is no why. Here there is no when, no how, no where.” Take away everything that gives us understanding. All that is left is the inescapable magnetic pull. Towards the horror.’

David Chute, Los Angeles Times

‘The best news about Time’s Arrow, the news with the most profound implications for the future good health of Anglo-American literature, is that it is Martin Amis’ most structurally extreme and thrilling book since his pivotal Other People: A Mystery Story in 1981. The book is a sweeping return to form, gripping from start to finish, completely free of the pall of gray London soot that seemed to have settled over the writer’s soul, yet as morally upright as even he could wish. Martin Amis has finally managed to integrate his early literary and his grown-up moral ferocities, to their mutual benefit.’

David Lehman, The New York Times

‘Most audacious is Mr. Amis’s appropriation of erasure – the definitive motif of deconstruction – which he applies to the genocide of the Jews. The very instrument of revisionist history is put to the service of heartbreaking fiction.’

John Mullan, The Guardian

‘The novel’s technical audacity shifts it away from presumption – from purporting to describe the horrors we infer. Instead the reader, whose imagination history has stocked with images enough, has to keep working out what has really happened.’


‘Amis’s particularity as a writer – the ethical outrage plus the gorgeously soiled, infinitely plastic style – is still remarkable: but his nimbleness on the stage of the global, historical, Big Picture theater serves him less and less well.’

What the author said

‘The common conception of how novels get written seems to me to be an exact description of writer’s block. In the common view, the writer is at this stage so desperate that he’s sitting around with a list of characters, a list of themes, and a framework for his plot, and ostensibly trying to mesh the three elements. In fact, it’s never like that. What happens is what Nabokov described as a throb. A throb or a glimmer, an act of recognition on the writer’s part. At this stage the writer thinks, here is something I can write a novel about. In the absence of that recognition I don’t know what one would do. It may be that nothing about this idea – or glimmer, or throb – appeals to you other than the fact that it’s your destiny, that it’s your next book. You may even be secretly appalled or awed or turned off by the idea, but it goes beyond that. You’re just reassured that there is another novel for you to write.’

Read the full interview here.

Portrait of Martin Amis.

Questions and discussion points

Time’s Arrow details the life and experiences of Unverdorben in reverse order. The unusual structure garnered mixed reactions from readers and critics. Did you find that the structure enhanced the powerful themes and devastating subject matter, or dilute their impact? Did you find it gimmicky?

Why do you think Amis decided to incorporate a separate narrator into the book instead of just relaying the events from Unverdorben’s perspective? Is the narrator to be seen as Unverdorben’s conscience, or part of a split persona? And does this dual approach work?

Amis uses real-life events from the Holocaust, including a character based on Josef Mengele, a Nazi doctor at Auschwitz. How does the melding of real and imagined events affect your reading of the novel?

It has been argued that Amis borrowed the concept of travelling backwards in time as a plot device from Kurt Vonnegut, who used it in Slaughterhouse-Five. Amis recognised that Vonnegut’s 1969 novel served as inspiration for Time’s Arrow. Which author do you think employed the technique more effectively?

Over the years, Martin Amis has become almost as well known for his controversial opinions and his private life as for his fiction. Is it ever possible to read his novels without being acutely aware of the author’s presence and personality, and does that bring with it a certain amount of baggage which affects the reading experience?

How does Time’s Arrow compare to other depictions of the Holocaust in fiction (in books or on-screen)? Considering how much has been written about this dark period, what is Amis saying that hasn’t been said elsewhere?

Amis’ father was acclaimed author Kingsley Amis, who won the Booker Prize in 1986 with The Old Devils and was, in 2008, ranked by the Times as ahead of Martin on their list of the 50 greatest British authors since 1945. How do you think having a literary icon as a father affected Martin’s writing?

Amis uses the backwards chronology for grotesque effect at times, with bowel movements going in reverse, sex beginning with an orgasm, and doctors breaking bones instead of healing them. What did you make of these blackly comic moments? Can the book as a whole be seen as a black comedy?

To what extent is this a novel about destiny and morality? The reverse chronology leaves individuals unable to make moral choices and drawn towards inevitable situations. To what extent is Amis attempting to show how Nazi doctors such as Unverdorben felt about free will and the morality of their actions?

Resources and further reading

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