I love Alice in Wonderland. I loved ‘After Alice’ by Gregory Maguire. I adore the story and the extent to which it is possible to redesign Carroll’s original world.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so traumatised upon reading a book, and yet there’s a sequel and I’ve ordered it because I’m stubborn like that.
Alice is in a mental asylum, next to a man called Hatcher. She is there because she was found covered in blood and weeping, and kept talking about a rabbit. He is there because he murdered 12 people with an axe. An intriguing opening, with a lot of mystery intertwined in. Alice and Hatcher escape the asylum, and begin a journey through the city to defeat the Jabberwock – a magician from the old days trapped when he turned to dark magic. In the meantime, their journey through the filthy underworld of Cheshire, Caterpillar, Walrus and Rabbit is the most horrifying and disgustingly foul thing I have ever read.
Walrus rapes girls and eats them so he can absorb their magic, but he is disappointed every time because the only girl with magic is Alice, who escaped him. Caterpillar keeps girls in a brothel dressed like butterflies, and in the meantime has a mermaid trapped and a woman surgically altered to look like a butterfly in a cage. The woman’s only escape is to beg for death, which Hatcher fulfills. Rabbit sells girls, rapes Alice when she is 16 to ‘break’ her. Cheshire seems a little more stable, but his game playing and cruelty is immeasurable.
I felt sick reading this, but at the same time, gripped by the mystery. Who is Jenny? Will Alice survive? What really happened.
And then of course there was Pipkin; a white bunny made into a giant so that he could fight in cage fights, who Alice can talk to and rescues, and who sets himself up as a protector of all the girls that Alice frees. Pipkin was a moment of light relief.
Henry has created a disturbing and horrific world, one that I only engage with because of the strong and clever interweaving of the original Alice in Wonderland stories. Based in an unnamed city, where the Old City is separated from the New City by soldiers and guards and no intermingling is allowed, Henry does not for a moment pretend that Wonderland exists. Everything is almost believable – the names, the characters. I was most impressed with Cheshire; he was the one character throughout that I felt really stayed true to the original characterisation. He is mysterious, has a great big grin, and helps only when it suits him, and even then his ‘help’ is confusing and misguided.
But nothing can excuse the rape, the murder, the blood, the horror of this story. It has all been so unnecessary. It would have been an intriguing tale without the horror that runs alongside it. But Henry overplays her hand, allowing the blood and gore to overtake the terrifying world that she has created.
Don’t get me wrong; whilst simple, Henry’s writing of place is absolutely fantastic. You can feel the difference between the Old City and the New City. There are no long, intrusive descriptions, but you learn enough about the place through what they witness. Alice and Hatcher’s amnesia both help with that, because they have to run through what is familiar to work out what they know and what they don’t.
Her characterisation is also very impressive. It helps that she is working with a much loved story and well known characters, but the development of love between Alice and Hatcher, the chase for the Rabbit, who you know as evil and are surprised by his physical state when he is found, and the creation of the over lords of the City are all very impressive. Some characters you feel you know before you actually meet them. Others, you get to know along the way. The physical descriptions were lacking a little, but again, because of the nature of the transformation, you can work with what you know about the story beforehand.
I’m just upset and slight disgusted that someone can think it’s okay to write such horror in such a blithe way. I expected a mystery, some uncomfortable-ness, but not a blaise writing of rape. It is almost as if Henry undermines the horror of the experience – rape is not bad enough, so let’s imagine someone eating their victim, or turning them into a human butterfly with broken legs… I can’t get over the imagery. It was foul and horrid.
So whilst the writing was good and the transformation interesting, overall I have hated reading this novel. I can’t help myself, the sequel is already on its way, and as Alice and Hatcher are leaving the city to hunt for Hatcher’s daughter, I hope that some of the horror will dissipate. But it has left a horrid taste in my mouth.