Book Review

Gregory Maguire’s AFTER ALICE

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Title:
After Alice
Author: Gregory Macguire
Format: Audiobook
Start Date: September 30, 2016
End Date: October 12, 2016
Rating: 2.5 stars

 

“You have your nation to govern. And your children to raise. And it’s not too late to read the books you missed in childhood,” said Ada.
“Have you anything to recommend?”
“You want something nonsensical,” said Ada. “Keep looking. It will come along.”
“We need something to return our stolen childhood to us,” said Queen Victoria sadly.  “We do hope it is not too late for that.”

As per Ada’s sentiment, I have realized that it is indeed not too late to read the books missed in childhood. Rather, it’s a good form of escapism to reminisce on a time where life was simpler and, though the world made less sense, it was easier to understand.

I have a confession: I had never previously read Lewis Carroll’s famous Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland nor the “sequel” Through the Looking Glass, which really is in bad form seeing as the name of my blog is a play-on-words of this famous work. Admittedly, up until now, I have only seen several of the movie adaptations (such as the 1951 Disney adaptation, a 1999 TV Special, and Tim Burton’s 2010 and 2016 adaptations).

Carroll’s Alice was a charming book about a seven-year-old girl falling down the rabbit hole into a strange world filled with curious things.

“Dear, dear! How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!”

I think the great beauty of Alice, although published in the 1860s, is that the story is still relevant today. To me, Alice created Wonderland in her head as a way to cope with and to understand the adult world that she was not yet a part of. She created a world of characters with unique idiosyncrasies that, though mad, were quite endearing.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Even Gregory Maguire shared this sentiment, noting at the end of After Alice in an Afterword titled Alice, Before:

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Blithe and trusting and rarely frightened or lonely, she negotiates as best she can a nonsense Wonderland as scary as it is comic. Scary? Terrifying. Underneath the inverted logic, embedded even in the word nonsense, roils an existential dread. Nonsense is no sense. And to a child, the arbitrary rules of the world, of identity and time, of strength and submission, even of death and life, make no sense… For in the end, Alice in Wonderland is a portrait of a lone agent on assignment to a hardship post; a child surrounded by mad adults, trying to master a foreign tongue. The world is impenetrably mysterious… Lewis Carroll’s nonsense is the greatest sense. Carroll seditiously promises us that while madness will never lift, neither will childhood be subdued.

I think this is how he approached After Alice: as a way, as an adult, to understand Wonderland and its implications for today. However, I feel like his fictionalized interpretation of Alice in Wonderland took away from the magic and beauty of the original story.

After Alice followed Ada on her own adventures into Wonderland as she followed after Alice (albeit unknowingly at first), always just a step behind. In her travels, she meets many of the familiar characters that, through Alice, we already know and love: the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, the Queen of Hearts, the White Queen, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Caterpillar, and many others.

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Concurrently to Ada, we also follow the narrative of Lydia (Alice’s sister) and Miss Armstrong (Ada’s governess) as they search for the missing girls during that summer afternoon. This provided an element to the story that Carroll’s original tale did not have: a balance, of sorts, between the aloft nature of Wonderland and the grounded world of Victorian England – an era filled with morality, modesty, and sensibility. This stark contrast seems to further emphasize the madness of Wonderland.

When I first finished the story, I was under the impression that it had a major flaw:

Ada couldn’t begin to imagine. Up until ten minutes ago, Ada had not had much experience in the practice of imagination.

I began to question the validity of the whole story. How does a girl with little to no imagination traverse the wilds of Wonderland? How can she, when it’s a place of dreams and nonsense?

But for Ada, her journey was a story of liberation, different from that of Alice’s. In Alice’s adventures, she was liberated from the world of adulthood, in a sense: free to be a child and interpret the world as she saw fit, without having to answer to adults. In Ada’s liberation, although also liberated from the world of adulthood – escaping from her dysfunctional family and hovering governess – Ada was also liberated from herself and from her limitations. She began to imagine and explore freely, things that had been denied to her for her entire life because of her crooked spine. Because of her deformity, she was seen as less-than a person, just as a child is seen as less-than an adult.

She was liberated from the contraption – the Jabberwock – as it fell from her body during her descent down the rabbit hole. It followed her throughout Wonderland, never quite leaving her be. By the end, only when she embraced and accepted the Jabberwock, was she really and truly free. Because she had learned what it meant to be without it, and she had learned what it meant to be free.

The Jabberwock had grown, but so had she, it seemed. The fit was even keener than it had been this morning. Of course, Ada was accustomed to being shucked into the apparatus below her clothing, and now it was overlaid, and public, like a suit of armor, but she had no intention of stripping to her smalls in a court of law, however deranged the audience.

However, most of her travels in Wonderland were merely re-imaginings of encounters with characters that we, through Alice, have already met. There was nothing terribly new or unique, and it felt more like a rearrangement of the plot just to suite a different heroine. I get that it’s Maguire’s gimmick – after all, his other works seem to give us a behind-the-scene’s look at other well-known stories (Wicked of The Wizard of Oz or Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister of Cinderella) – but I just couldn’t appreciate anything that made it really uniquely Gregory Maguire.

We already know that Dinah, Alice’s cherished cat, was a great influenced on the existence of the Cheshire Cat, a fact that Alice herself confirmed. However, in Oxford, England, Maguire also introduces us to a plethora of characters that might have inspired some of the well-liked (and well-disliked) characters in Wonderland. For example, the cook of the Clowd household, a one Mrs. Brummidge, seemed a likely allusion to the Queen of Hearts – whether or not that was Maguire’s intention. It was interesting to catch a glimpse of the other side, and I did enjoy that aspect of Maguire’s telling – though I would have liked more.

He also introduced a great number of secondary characters that, although interesting figures of history, I don’t think were necessarily interesting to the story. The only reason I would claim them to be interesting, per se, would be for the purpose to gain a better understanding of what was going on in 1860s England. We meet Charles Darwin, who was paying his condolences to the Clowd household, travelling with his American companion Mr. Winters, as well as Mr. Winter’s charge Siam.

Now, Siam was a young boy who escaped from slavery on the American Underground Railroad. Mr. Winters brought Siam to England to avoid the boy being re-sold into slavery, seeing as America was on the verge of (or in the midst of) the American Civil War (1861-1865). Siam, late in the story, finds himself on the other side of the looking glass in Wonderland, eventually meeting up with Ada. But it was far too late and his part of the story far too short and unsatisfying. Instead of travelling back to England with Ada and Alice, he elects to stay in Wonderland – to live in the Wood of No Names – because there was “little left to miss” back in England (and America). Because of where he came from, he desired to leave behind who he had been and forge ahead anew. Like the girls, Siam was also liberated: he was liberated from his past, from his awful childhood, and from his future of uncertainty. I really don’t think his portion of the story was handled at all well – poor Siam seemed more like an afterthought than as a part of the story. But, in the end, he did get to travel to Wonderland and become truly free.

In the last chapter of the book, we glimpse into the perspective of Charles Darwin, as he and Mr. Winters are travelling back by train from the Clowd household. Darwin, old at this point, spews some nonsense of his own. It felt almost like a nod to Carroll himself, or recognition of the fact that even when we grow up, we can still retain some of our childhood innocence and imagination.

“I was musing on the notion of cataphany…from the Greek cata, meaning down, and phantazein, to make visible. Also the root of fantasy, don’t you know. Cataphany: an insight, a revelation of underness…” The elderly man [Darwin] continued, out of mercy and out of curiosity, for that was what he was like. “Let me put it more scientifically. If separate species develop skills that help them survive, and if those attributes are favored which best benefit the individual and its native population, to what possible end might we suppose has arisen, Mr. Winter, that particular capacity of the human being known as the imagination?”

Nothing can compare to Carroll’s story of a girl named Alice. Writing this review made me realize that Maguire’s story was actually quite insightful, though it still fell flat for me overall.

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