Melanie Butler-O’Reilly takes a look at a classic tale with a very modern twist.
We live in a world where ‘retellings’ and ‘reimaginings’ of classic tales are being announced almost daily. Take Disney, for example: while I am one of their most loyal supporters, the seemingly endless influx of live action remakes and new slants on an old story have left me a bit jaded of the concept.
This brings me to Christina Henry’s Alice. This novel is a re-imagining of the iconic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a world that has remained a firm favourite of both children and adults for more than a hundred years. It is perhaps no secret that even the original tales were disturbing, and potentially a reflection of Carroll’s opium use. However, these stories are essentially a form escapism for children.
Alice veers sharply away from Carroll’s Wonderland. Henry leaves the reader with the feeling there never was a Wonderland, only a twisted metaphor for depravity and corruption.
This is not a fairy story, it is a crime story.
Alice is the tale of a young woman who has been committed to a psychiatric hospital after she was discovered emerging from the Old City with blood stains on her thighs, disjointed memories, and garbled ramblings about a rabbit. I will not spoil anymore of Alice’s journey, it is best discovered for oneself.
A warning, however: the novel is not for the faint hearted, bluntly depicting vicious scenes of sexual violence and often holding nothing back in its brutality. Yet the frequent bloodshed does not mar what is undoubtedly Henry’s greatest achievement; the characters of Alice and the Cheshire Cat. The titular heroine quite clumsily and almost unintentionally endears herself to the reader as the story progresses. This older, more damaged Alice is a survivor – without giving away too many spoilers, she is specifically a rape survivor. Despite her intense trauma, she manages to present a strong feminist message and remains in control of her own novel. A sad trend has emerged in modern literature, one which has seen initially robust female leads watch their story run away from them: generally down the avenue of becoming little more than a love interest.
Alice, in a refreshing turn of events, does not make the same mistake as other Wonderland adaptations, which allow the iconic Mad Hatter to eclipse its leading lady. This unfortunate habit was clear in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. The promotion featured Johnny Depp’s Hatter far more than it did Mia Wasikowska as Alice herself. Henry allows Alice to come into her own without the interference and consistent presence of the Hatter.
Cheshire on the other hand, a character often overlooked, is thrust into the spotlight by Henry; an excellent decision by the author, as he provides a highly entertaining foil to Alice and her naivety. While purposely predatory and menacing, Cheshire does not easily subscribe to the ideals of good and evil so prevalent throughout the novel. He is a character each reader must form their own opinion of, with no deliberate direction from Henry. Cheshire is both troubling and darkly comical, a direct nod to his predecessor in Carroll’s Wonderland.
While the novel may feature many familiar names, the characters hold little to no likeness to their inspiration. Alice is not a small, precocious child; she is a grown woman faced with her own blurred recollections and potential insanity. The White Rabbit is no longer a pocket watch-clutching creature, but a monstrous hybrid. Cheshire, as previously mentioned, is shadowy at best. In the end, it is the preconceived notion the reader has of these characters that makes Henry’s creations even more horrifying- a fact she is well aware of and exploits brilliantly.
Alice is not without its faults of course. The entire setting, or ‘world’ of the story, is left entirely too vague to conjure a complete picture, and the ending feels abrupt. Much of the novel is devoted to establishing the presence of the Jabberwock; yet the eventual confrontation is rushed and feels almost disjointed. The novel’s conclusion renders the Jabberwock unsatisfactory. It is also possible to argue that the cruelty and violence can start to seem manufactured and only incorporated into the novel for somewhat of a shock factor. Less close, and less bloody, calls for Alice, and more consideration and care put into the confrontation with the Jabberwock would have concluded the novel with finesse. Instead, it merely fizzles out.
Despite its faults, Christina Henry’s Alice is a powerful and unnerving vision well worth falling down the rabbit hole for, even if ‘re-imaginings’ and adaptations have left you unfulfilled in the past. In truth, the novel is much more than a quick read or a delightfully disturbing twist on a classic.
It is a testament to the grown-up Alice in all of us.