Alice by Christina Henry

AliceSometimes knowing the source material well is a big help.  Sometimes, not so much.

I have read Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland more times than anyone you know.  I used to use it with my seventh graders when I taught a GATE class, back when such things existed in California, so I read the book twice a year for several years.  I’ve probably read it 12 to 15 times.

So I know the material pretty well.

Which does help when reading Christina Henry’s take on the story in her novel Alice.

Ms. Henry’s Alice is a post modern punk version, edgy, dark, even more pyschological than the original novel.  Here Alice begins the story as a patient/prisoner in an asylum where she has befriended a young man, Hatch, by talking to him through a mouse hole in the wall between their cells.  Hatch fears the Jabberwocky, a beast he claims is awakening from it’s sleep in the rooms below the asylum.

Once he and Alice escape from the asylum, they head towards the center of the city, the part that has fallen into the hands of various crime lords who can exploit the lawless poverty and decay found there.  Each crime boss controls a portion of streets, each one is named after a character in Alice, The Cheshire Cat, The Walrus, The White Rabbit.  Ms. Henry’s Alice must reach the heart of the old city where she can confront the White Rabbit and discover the true nature of herself and the magic she seems to possess.

For well over the first half of the novel, this all worked very well for me.  It didn’t really make total sense in the way most novels would, but neither does Lewis Carroll’s Alice.  Rather it works on a more emotional level, a kind of illogical logic that doesn’t really make sense except that it does in it’s own way.  In Ms. Henry’s world, Alice journeys through parts of the old city, struggles to deal with the characters she meets there in a way the reminded me of Samuel Delany’s massive novel Dahlgren which featured a young man travelling into a city that had decayed into a similar kind of illogical logic.

I may be the only person you know who has read Samuel Delany’s Dahlgren and loved it, by the way.  One of my all-time favorite books.

One thing Ms. Henry gets right in her re-interpretation of Alice is just how dangerous ‘Wonderland’ is.  Nearly everyone Alice meets in Lewis Carroll’s books is mean to her, many threaten her life, some with actual weapons in hand.  This is a childish kind of violence but it’s violence none-the-less.  The sort young children find funny because they don’t know any better yet.  Take The Duchess who Alice finds sinking to a baby:

Speak roughly to your little boy
and beat him when he sneezes
he only does it to annoy
because he knows it teases.

Alice frees this baby which later turns into a small pig, after the two have escaped from The Duchess and her cook who puts pepper into every dish and throws cooking utensils at everyone.

In Ms. Henry’s Alice the charters are openly vicious crime lords, which doesn’t strike me as that much of a stretch, really.  Putting the underlying violence of Lewis Carroll’s work on the surface as a main focus of the story works well for most of the novel.  This grown up Alice moves in a mad world with adult consequences, people really die here.

I began to have problems with Ms. Henry’s book at around the two thirds mark.  Lewis Carroll’s novels really are just one thing after another.  Alice meets a giant talking caterpillar. Alice meets some talking flowers.  Alice meets a smiling cat.  One reason why Carroll can get away with this structure, besides being a darn fine wit, is that it’s all over in about 100 pages, more if your edition is illustrated.  Just when you’re starting to get a little board with it all, the story comes to it’s final scenes and young Alice wakes up.

Ms. Henry’s novel goes on for nearly 300 pages, as most novels for adults do, but the story did not develop into something more than one set piece after another.  I confess, I skipped over several chapters to see what would happen in the end.

I hope to avoid spoilers here, but if you’ve based your novel on another one, one as well known as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, then many readers are going to have an idea how it all will end.  In both Alice books, Alice takes control of the dream before she wakes. She recognizes that she need not fear anyone in the courtroom where she is on trial because they are all just a pack of cards.  In Looking Glass she becomes queen by crossing the chessboard.  Then she returns by waking from her dream, an ending which never failed to disappoint my students.

So I expected Ms. Henry’s Alice to take charge of her world, to defeat the crime bosses or to become one, and then to wake up back in the asylum where she started the novel.

Part of that happened, part of it didn’t.

I liked my ending better.

And even though I skipped a few chapters, I enjoyed Christina Henry’s novel Alice.