Alice, Christina Henry

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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.

The Plot

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.

After Alice, Gregory Maguire

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I adore Alice in Wonderland. Absolutely fully and completely adore it. It is the most wonderful and imaginative of texts, filled with so much content that you can read it again and again and still never fully reach its depths. From movies, to TV series to books and spin offs, Alice in Wonderland is a never ending joy.

I also quite like Gregory Maguire. His Wicked series is a political rendering of a kids’ story like none I’ve ever read before. I enjoyed that quartet thoroughly and completely, awakening in me a new passion for the Wizard of Oz that I had not felt before.

So, Alice in Wonderland + Gregory Maguire = a seemingly great mix.

And it was good. But it wasn’t great. Not until the end. It seemed like a task to get into the story, which focusses on Lydia, Alice’s sister, Ada, Alice’s friend mentioned briefly in the originals, and Miss Armstrong, Ada’s ‘nanny’. Ada arrives just in time to fall down the rabbit hole after Alice. Miss Armstrong and Lydia search for their respective charges, often together, and in the process also manage to lose Siam, a young boy of colour supposedly rescued by Mr Winter, and assistant to Darwin. And there we have the setup of a very clearly structured but rather disappointing tale.

Ada

Ada is an interesting character, physically disabled and recently replaced by a younger, sickly brother, as the favoured child of her household. Her father’s role as vicar features heavily in Ada’s understanding of Wonderland and her reactions to others, although the bible is only really overtly mentioned once or twice. There is a consistent suggestion of impropriety between Ada’s father and Miss Armstrong, undermining the strength of the religion, alongside Darwin’s science and the death of Alice’s mother. All in all, there is a rather atheistic feel to the novel, which lends itself to a sense of hopelessness. Ada, however, emerges as the hero who rescues Alice from death. The Jabberwok, the most feared creature in all of Wonderland, is Ada’s metal corset, used to straighten her spine from its deformity. She shed it in the fall to Wonderland (which she debates regularly, may well be hell as it is so far below the surface) and it returns with a mind of its own in the feared form of a Jabberwok. Whilst Ada is initially portrayed as an unimaginative, clingy and needy child, her responses to Wonderland show the depth of her acceptance of what is put before her, and she shows no surprise at the return of her corset but rather defeats the Jabberwok by putting it back on. She is the faithful sidekick, the real hero of the piece, one who understands Wonderland better than Alice herself, as Ada does not expect anything to make sense.

Lydia

Uncovering Lydia’s character was an almost impossible task – a young girl caught between childhood and womanhood, who has lost her mother, has an emotionally absent father and a wandering sister. You feel great sympathy for Lydia as she seeks the affections of Mr Winter, but also that maternal frustration at her that she doesn’t understand the way the world works. You pity and admire Lydia, for her loss and what she has gained through it. Whilst her selfishness could be interpreted as deplorable, I believe it is rather an accurate representation of the female teenage struggle to find your place in the world. Miss Armstrong declares that Lydia ‘you are cruel, then you are kind and then you are cruel beyond compare. I do not understand you, but there is no time to try’.  (p191).  In that single sentence, Lydia’s struggles and the struggles of all teenagers are summed up; they do not know their own identity, they flit between cruelness and kindness to see which one works, and no one seems able or willing to take the time to work through this with them. Perhaps if Lydia’s mother was alive, her struggle would not be so intense.

The imagery of the Jabberwok as Ada’s corset is what saves this tale from total disaster. Similarly to Ursula LeQuinn’s Earthsea series, the fearsome thing that Ada runs from is actually a well known and recognised part of herself. It is not the unknown that we fear, but the seemingly inevitable future we see for ourselves.

Maguire sticks quite truly to Carroll’s original Wonderland, reusing the same characters and language (the caterpillar starts with ‘whooooo are you?). Carroll had already created a dark and deeply political underworld, so unlike the Wizard of Oz, there was not much more confusion or intrigue to be made. What Maguire does exceptionally well is to make sure that nothing makes sense. Perhaps that is why I don’t feel like I read a great book, just a good one. Because there seems no purpose, no goal in it. But isn’t that the point of Wonderland? There is no end goal, only Wonderland itself.

I am glad I discovered and read After Alice. It has engaged my brain again with the concept that the worlds we think we know and love are far from as simple as we imagine. I liked Ada, she was kind and sensible in a senseless and horrid world and she is a realistic heroine that perhaps those who are not standard ‘beauty’ of Alice can aspire to.