By Katy Goodwin-Bates
Before commencing this review, I feel it is important to state for the record how strongly Alice in Wonderland has completely taken over my life. Thanks to the obsessive tendencies of my three-year-old, I have watched the film probably three times a week for the last few months. I have read aloud the book. I have spent every waking hour being forced to live my life as one of Lewis Carroll’s characters (usually the Queen of Hearts; make of this what you will). I have even perfected my impersonation of Alice when she sings that silly song about cats and rabbits.
I quite like Alice in Wonderland and I assumed I would like Gregory Maguire’s After Alice (Headline, 2015) in much the same way I was basically obsessed with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a child and have enjoyed Maguire’s Wicked and subsequent sequels. And what this shows is where assumptions get you.
What Maguire does really effectively in After Alice is mimic and develop the style of the original stories while incorporating Carroll’s vast cast of characters. After Alice focuses on Alice’s friend Ada, briefly mentioned once in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Ada is ignored at home and consequently manages to inadvertently fall to Wonderland before anyone notices she’s gone. What follows is a familiar journey through Wonderland, with Ada trailing in Alice’s wake while encountering the Cheshire Cat, caterpillar and attendees of what fans of Carroll’s work will recognise as “the stupidest tea party” Alice had ever been to. If you’ve read Alice in Wonderland, you’ll recognize the linguistic trickery Maguire engages in, constructing exchanges of mind-boggling wordplay which entertain as much as they confuse.
“‘Given your armor, I assume you’re a knight with a K.’
‘Sometimes,’ he said, ‘though I have lost my helmet and visor. For all I know I have misplaced the K in my name, too. But I would answer to White Night, sans the K, without blushing.’
‘Night as in night-time? I never heard of a White Night.’
‘The more common name of that animal, I believe, is Noon.’
‘But there is no night-time in Noon.’ (page 100)
Maguire’s writing is often witty and both utilizes and expands upon the humor of the source novel, with puns and irreverent exchanges throughout. As Ada is lost in the nonsense around her, so is the reader, and perhaps this is the point. After Alice, as with its parent story, is nothing if not escapist. Perhaps this is Maguire’s point: late on, one character exclaims that, “we need something to return our stolen childhood to us… we do hope it is not too late for that” (page 226), and it is conceivable that Maguire’s intention is to provide his reader with their own rabbit-hole into a more childish and innocent time.
I can’t help but see After Alice, however, as a missed opportunity. To use another Oz-based example, Danielle Paige has used her source text to much greater effect in the Dorothy Must Die series in constructing a linked but hugely different fantasy world, and I rather hoped Maguire would be performing a similar feat. His skill in aping the style of a classic text is undeniable and fans of Carroll’s much-loved works might relish a return to childhood fantasy. I think I expected After Alice to follow a similar model to Wicked: perhaps adding backstory or developing the reader’s understanding of under-appreciated characters. L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz dispenses with the Wicked Witch of the West in one chapter, and even the celebrated Judy Garland adaptation only gives her 9 minutes of screen time. Wicked, meanwhile, offers considered explanation of what made the witch wicked in the first place: an explanation so convincing it has become canon to me. So what would After Alice provide? A similar justification for the Queen of Hearts’ homicidal tendencies? Perhaps the formative japes of a Cheshire Kitten?
Sadly, After Alice provides no such insights and, if I’m honest, I was bemused as to the point of it up until very near the end. The book reads most consistently as a pastiche–perhaps even fan fiction–and shows Ada’s journey through Wonderland almost entirely following Alice’s own trajectory; in there, Ada is on a mission to save her friend, but this objective is occasionally as lost as the novel’s protagonist. Maguire constructs a parallel narrative, with alternating chapters depicting Charles Darwin for some reason visiting Alice’s home, as well as showing the search for Alice, Ada and, ultimately, another lost child, as the adults above ground finally realize all the minors are AWOL. After Alice could be accurately subtitled How to be a Terrible Fictional Parent; here, perhaps, the novel gains a little traction; Ada’s parents, absorbed with a troublesome newborn and dismissive of their older child and her physical weaknesses, come to represent a prison from which Ada escapes through her accidental adventure. Having come up with this remarkably astute interpretation, however, I’m not entirely sure it is supported by the novel’s ending.
“What with her tormented spine, she’d never been allowed to swim. She wondered if this was the time to try. She raked her limbs. She only succeeded in inching her corset further off her arms. It wouldn’t come off unless she undressed herself almost entirely. If I am headed to Hell, where’s the harm, she thought.”
– page 26
Ultimately, After Alice will entertain an open-minded reader, especially one with fond childhood memories of the original story; despite my frustrations with the duelling narratives, the irreverence of the dialogue and innocence of Ada’s reflections did make me smile. As with Lewis Carroll’s novel, there is enjoyable nonsense, and Maguire provides opportunities to read more deeply if the reader desires to. I suspect, however, that After Alice will be most enjoyable without such deep analysis.
After Alice is available now at GPL.