After Alice - Review

Alice in Wonderland is quite possibly the most famous children's book in existence. That's a pretty bold statement in a world where stories like the Narnia books and the Harry Potter series exist, but I'd argue Alice is to kids' stories what The Lord of the Rings is to fantasy. It's one of the archetypal books, still beloved today and constantly reinterpreted.

The hallowed status afforded Alice in Wonderland therefore makes reading a book like After Alice quite difficult. To link to Lord of the Rings again, it's almost equivocal to some people's complaints about last year's Shadow of Mordor; introducing a newly-framed story in an existing one that's well-regarded and part of the genre's DNA? Or, moreover, using that new story to try and deconstruct part of the old one? You're either very brave or as mad as a hatter; given where After Alice takes place, you're probably the latter.

The premise is simple; not long after Alice tumbles down the rabbit-hole into Wonderland, her ten-year-old friend Ada - mentioned fleetingly in a passage of the original Alice that this book helpfully includes - goes off to find her. Ada eventually enters Wonderland herself, starts following the trail Alice has left and meets most of Wonderland's supporting players not long after Alice meets or has tea with them herself. At the same time, up in 1860s Oxford, Alice's sister Lydia sets off to find both Ada and Alice before the police get involved. Along the way Lydia meets Mr Winter, whose young ward Siam might also have something to do with the goings-on in the Wonderland below the real world.

Let me state up front that After Alice is, like so much else I've reviewed, not a bad book. It's also not a great book.I struggled to really get involved in the book, given that it splits its time between the Wonderland sections (which are good) and the Oxford bits (which aren't as good) without really finding a good way to bind the two meaningfully. While Lydia's plot - and, more to the point, Siam's - has relevance to the larger Wonderland story of Ada, it feels oddly disconnected and not about much of anything in comparison. As the story opens Lydia and Alice's mother has recently died, but even that element feels like it's largely glossed over in favour of the meandering through Oxford that most of Lydia's story entails. Having read this book only a couple of days ago, I struggled to remember much of Lydia's plot besides her interactions with Mr Winter and Siam, the latter of whom ends up playing a bigger part in Ada's story anyway.

On the subject of which, while Ada's sections in Wonderland are more interesting - and, incidentally, quite smartly funny - they also feel a little insubstantial. It's almost as if we're reading Ada in Wonderland or Alice 2.0, given that Ada meets almost all the same characters Alice did (give or take a Tweedle or two) and seems to follow roughly the same path as her friend did. Not that it isn't nice to be in Wonderland again, especially since author Gregory Maguire does his best to pepper the prose with nice little Lewis Carroll-style snarks from Ada. Despite the prose that quite obviously does it best to sound clever and deep, it just feels like, along with Lydia's story, it doesn't have much to say about itself.

Part of the problem with After Alice is its another entry in Maguire's catalog, an author best known for his subversive takes on old stories in books like Wicked (The Wizard of Oz), Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (Cinderella) and Mirror, Mirror (Snow White). Maguire's body of work made me excited for whatever kind of dark, twisted re-imagined version of Alice in Wonderland he had in mind, but in the end it turns out there really wasn't one. A couple of adult themes are hinted at in Lydia's sections of the story, but apart from that it doesn't have the more clever, inventive retelling of parts of the original story that most of Maguire's work is known for. It was a bit disappointing, if I'm honest (and I try to be in all things, except when people ask me what they're getting for Christmas).

But as I said, After Alice is not a bad book. It's a disappointing one, certainly, and I'd definitely favour Wicked over it, but it has its highlights. Ada's delightfully sarcastic and clever for a ten-year-old protagonist, and Maguire does his best to write Wonderland's inhabitants as close to Carroll's original interpretations as possible. There's also a nice meditation at the end on the quality of imagination that serves almost as a neat little footnote to the story. Keeping in mind I'm not the most devout Alice in Wonderland fan, those who are will probably get more out of this than I did (and there may even be a few things for those who liked Through the Looking Glass, too).

Ultimately, this is not the kind of fun subversion I anticipated from Maguire. There's fun to be had if you're ok with getting through the fairly dull Lydia portions of the story, and despite its flowery purple prose there are moments when Maguire's writing closely echoes Carroll's. Maybe you'll be into everything I've just cited as a drawback for me, in which case feel free to ignore me and go spend some more time with the White Rabbit.

- Chris

After Alice is available in bookstores now.

Review copy supplied to Geek of Oz by HarperCollins.


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