After Alice was published in 2015. My review does contain spoilers for most of the book.
When Alice toppled down the rabbit-hole 150 years ago, she found a Wonderland as rife with inconsistent rules and abrasive egos as the world she left behind. But what of that world? How did 1860s Oxford react to Alice’s disappearance?
In this brilliant new work of fiction, Gregory Maguire turns his dazzling imagination to the question of underworlds, undergrounds, underpinnings — and understandings old and new, offering an inventive spin on Carroll’s enduring tale. Ada, a friend of Alice’s mentioned briefly in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is off to visit her friend, but arrives a moment too late — and tumbles down the rabbit hole herself.
Ada brings to Wonderland her own imperfect apprehension of cause and effect as she embarks on an odyssey to find Alice and see her safely home from this surreal world below the world. If Euridyce can ever be returned to the arms of Orpheus, or Lazarus can be raised from the tomb, perhaps Alice can be returned to life. Either way, everything that happens next is After Alice.
This book is confusing. Not in the sense that certain details don’t add up or it’s difficult to keep the characters straight; I just had an interesting time understanding what Gregory Maguire was trying to do here. This book was marketed as a twist on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, not an adaptation, but a sort of continuation of the story from other points of view. There are elements of reflection and grandiose statements mixed in with [expected] Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland whimsy – but there’s also discourse on Darwinism vs. religion and the physical and symbolic natures of Oxford, England and its University. There is so much stuff packed into the 273 pages that it seems like the author had a bunch of things he wanted to get off his chest and for some reason decided a companion to a beloved or at least infamous story would be the best way to go about writing it all down. He apparently has never heard of the little thing called an essay. This overall confusion aside, there are some great quotes in this book that made me stop and ponder – which is of course one of the important aspects of literature.
For example, in chapter 10:
But what is character? How solid? We cut our hair, we shave our beards, we lose a limb. We remain ourselves. In dreams, however, we swap identities licentiously. We sabotage the structures of our character without a thought.
And in chapter 30:
Perhaps we love our Oxford because it seems eternal, and we can return arm in arm; while our private childhoods are solitary, unique to each of us alone, and lost. We cannot point them out to one another. Only, sometimes, in the text of a book here and there, we tap the page with a finger and say, “This is what my lost days were like. Something like this.” But even as we turn to the fellow in the bed beside us to say, “Yes, this passage here,” whatever it is we recognized has already disguised itself, changed in that split instant. There is no hope that our companion can see what we, just for a moment, saw anew and hailed with a startled, glad heart. Literary pleasure, and a sense of recognition and identification, real though they are, burn off like alcohol in the flame of the next heated moment.
These passages aren’t great examples of the pretentious writing style utilized in this novel, but Gregory Maguire kicked things off (and continued on for some time) with vocabulary far beyond my reach, and certainly beyond the reach of the intended audience of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. For the most part, however, the pretentious writing style didn’t bother me, and not all of the Dante and Shakespeare references were off-putting. For me, all of these elements helped make even the “real” (non-Wonderland) part of the story other-worldly and appropriately odd. Gregory Maguire toed the line of unbearable writing, he didn’t cross it necessarily.
Unfortunately though, the plot and characters are so mild and flat that there wasn’t anything else on the pages to pique my interest. The entire book comprises of the female characters worrying about Alice and searching for her, while the men sit and talk with Charles Darwin – about what one can only assume because the women and the reader are not privy to their conversation. Ada, Alice’s friend, is down in Wonderland searching for her, while Ada’s governess Miss Armstrong helps Lydia (Alice’s sister) search in the real world. There’s banter and some background details of the characters are discussed, but truthfully, it’s all so bland.
Then there’s Siam. He is introduced on page 80, and this is where the story really starts slipping into questionable territory (and towards disaster). Siam is a child around Alice and Ada’s age (10-12 years old), who was rescued by their father’s American friend Mr. Winter during the abolition of slavery. Siam was brought to England by Mr. Winter, and every scene Siam is in (which is most of them) is used to show the reader how people of color and men of color were seen by white colonialists in and around the late 1860s. Sure, the impression I got was that the racist and hateful comments and assumptions made by a few of the characters made those characters vile, but the story relating to Siam quickly went down the white-savior road. Stereotypes were not challenged, the white English characters all but patted themselves on their backs for bringing Siam into their culture; truthfully if Siam and his story line were cut from the book, Gregory Maguire would have had to come up with a different way to incorporate Through the Looking-Glass into the novel (which was a very tiny moment in the book), but that is it. Absolutely nothing else would have changed – the plot would have remained the same, all other characters could have remained the same, and I wouldn’t have to be wondering why the author believed the hateful views of that time period were so necessary. Siam even goes into Wonderland and decides to stay, because it’s clearly more feasible to believe he belongs there and not in the real world.
There were many moments close to the end of the book where I felt like I couldn’t slog through any more of the directionless plot and racist overtones of the story. But I continued, until close to the very end when Siam expresses he needs a “change of skin”. I skipped ahead to see if Ada was able to find Alice – she did – and closed the book.
So rather than walking away from this simply thinking it’s too bland and disappointing to recommend, I’m walking away from it thinking it’s too bland, disappointing, and incorporates unchecked racism and the white savior narrative far too intensely to give it any milligram of praise.