Review: Alice by Christina Henry
Themes: Madness, amnesia, power struggles, magic, facing your fears.
Warning: Possible triggers and definite spoilers.
It was the cover of this book that first caught my eye. With a cover and title like this, I realised it must have something to do with Lewis Carroll's Alice, the girl who went to Wonderland. However, I have on several occasions read or tried to read spin-offs or "takes" on classic literature, and rarely have they been satisfying reads. So, I passed it up. However, I kept thinking about it and when I returned to the charity shop a couple of weeks later, it was still there, and so I bought it. It lay on the floor by my bed, silently screaming "read me!" for the whole time it took me to finish Rob Cowen's Common Ground, and once I was done with that book, I immediately picked up this one. The only reason I didn't pull an overnighter to finish it in one session was that I had a meeting in the morning and needed to be alert.
But enough about that, let's turn to the book:
Alice has been in the madhouse for the last 10 years, haunted by vague memories of violence done to her and by her and a man with long, furry white ears. On the other side of one wall of her room lives her friend Hatcher, so called because he killed a number of men with a hatchet. He also suffers from amnesia, but can feel the threat from the Jabberwock, a monster that is imprisoned under the madhouse. One night a fire breaks out and Alice and Hatcher escape the asylum. As does the monster. They all escape into the Old City, a dirty, dangerous place ruled by five men: Cheshire, the Caterpillar, the Walrus, Mr. carpenter, and the Rabbit. Alice is told she has the ability to destroy the Jabberwock and must find a special sword that can kill it, but first she must find it, and for that she must deal with the rulers of the old city. And so begins a quest to find this magic object, but most of all to find herself and dig up her memories of her previous, fateful visit to the Old City she and Hatcher go deeper into the Old City. Hatcher also some memories of his own to dig up.
This is an original, twisted story based on what might, in another reality, have been the true, horrifying story behind the children's tale of Alice in Wonderland, complete with various characters from Carroll's tale, including the Caterpillar, Cheshire cat, the Mad Hatter and not just one, but two, rabbits, all of them skewed and twisted around in some way.
The story follows a basic quest plot with bildungsroman and revenge themes. Alice's development from teenager to adult was halted when she was put in the madhouse at age 16, 10 years before the beginning of the book, since she as not only locked up with little human interaction (and most of it bad), but also drugged for all of that time to make her pliant and keep her calm. Once she has escaped, she has to grow up very quickly and come, in a matter of hours (or even moments) to realisations and conclusions that most people take years to reach. The quest is twofold: on the one hand it's a quest for a magic sword - a typical macguffin - and on the other it's an inner quest for both her and Hatcher. Hatcher needs to regain his memory and discover how he came to kill all those men, and in order to be able to grow up and start healing from the past, Alice has to regain her memory, find her powers and discover why what happened to her did happen.
It is clear from the start that her inner quest will end with her facing her worst memories and her worst enemy in the Rabbit's warren, and the physical one with her confrontation with the Jabberwock.
And now come the spoilers (click the button to reveal):
Another reviewer expressed disappointment with both of these encounters, finding them anticlimactic and unsatisfying and out of proportion compared with the build-up. I, on the other hand, found both encounters to be rather more realistic and metaphorical than what I was expecting, and for that Christina Henry deserves applause. One encounter shows how one's long held fears of facing the monsters of one's youth can sometimes be worse than the eventual encounter, and the other is about the realisation that violence is not always the best answer and sometimes subtlety is a better solution.
This is a brutal, dark book, but it ends on a note of hope for Alice and Hatcher, who are clearly poised on the brink of another quest. One wants to believe that Alice's revulsion at being intimate with a man will ease enough to allow her to have a normal relationship with him.
I can see myself rereading this book down the line, so it's going on the keeper shelf. Now I just have to go and order the sequel, Red Queen.
Contains scenes of murder and serious violence. This includes sexual violence, implied sexual violence and violence done by both Alice and Hatcher.