114 – Alice by Christina Henry

Alice by Christina Henry A mind-bending new novel inspired by the twisted and wondrous works of Lewis Carroll…

In a warren of crumbling buildings and desperate people called the Old City, there stands a hospital with cinderblock walls which echo the screams of the poor souls inside.

In the hospital, there is a woman. Her hair, once blond, hangs in tangles down her back. She doesn’t remember why she’s in such a terrible place. Just a tea party long ago, and long ears, and blood…

Then, one night, a fire at the hospital gives the woman a chance to escape, tumbling out of the hole that imprisoned her, leaving her free to uncover the truth about what happened to her all those years ago.

Only something else has escaped with her. Something dark. Something powerful.

And to find the truth, she will have to track this beast to the very heart of the Old City, where the rabbit waits for his Alice.
Ugh you guys. You guys I don’t even want to talk about this book. I had one blissful day between finishing it and starting this review in which I didn’t have to think about this gruesome story and its ugly world, and having to dig it all up again write this fills me with dread. Ugh.

TW: rape, violence.

Hey everybody look, it’s another Alice in Wonderland retelling. But Cyna, you say, we’ve had approximately 359,403 of those. What makes this one any different?

Well, I say, this one’s a gritty grimdark retelling. This one’s a rape-revenge story.

Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep.

The plot is this: at sixteen, Alice was raped and physically disfigured by a man with blue-green eyes and rabbit ears. Unable to mentally cope, she’s thrown into an insane asylum by her wealthy family, who no longer want to deal with the inconvenience of her presence. There she spends six years bonding with the man in the cell next to her – a mad killer named Hatcher – until the night that a fire ravages the asylum and sets them free.

They escape into Old Town, the book’s alternate, vaguely dystopic Victorian England slums, where magical crime bosses rule, and any terrible thing that you could think of happens to women pretty much constantly. There Hatcher’s magic- and madness-ridden brain takes them to a home he doesn’t remember, to a grandmother who informs Alice that it is her destiny to accompany Hatcher in his quest to kill the Jabberwocky, an evil sorcerer-creature-thing that also escaped from the asylum during the fire.

BUT to do that they have to find the one magical weapon that can kill him, which takes the pair on a grotesque tour of the city’s crime bosses (each corresponding to a Wonderland figure) and all of the genuinely stomach-turning ways that they use and abuse women. Basically all of them die, and Alice and Hatcher ride off into the sequel-promising sunset.

So look, I can see the catharsis in a narrative in which a woman kills or facilitates the deaths of a half-dozen evil men who do terrible things, especially when the story is written in such a way that the violence is not eroticized. I get it. That can be a thing.

But for me personally, Alice was just way too fucking much. The rape is graphic and ever-present, and the violence is the kind of Eli Roth torture-porn shit I specifically try to avoid in my horror picks. I don’t even want to describe what it is that happens. It’s random-gritty-torture-generator stupid, but it’s also the sort of shit that I’d be happier never having been made to think about. If you’re curious enough you can find snippets in other GoodReads reviews, but just know that none of them have even the half of it.

Even if I generally give the book the benefit of the doubt that all of the disgusting shit that goes on in there is to make some sort of point about how oppressively dangerous the world is for women irl, and not for the gimmicky shock value of a grimdark Alice in Wonderland story, the result was the same for me: 188 pages of feeling like I’d set my brain to soak in a tub of raw sewage. Every time I put the book down, I felt like I needed a shower, and I seriously considered not picking it back up again.

Honestly I’m not even sure what to say about the rest of it. I sort of enjoyed the parts that weren’t gross, though those were few and far between, and I thought the Wonderland character port was reasonably well-done. The plot was completely on rails – I never really felt like the characters were actually in control of anything they were doing, and the information that they needed to get from point A to point B or overcome obstacle C came at plot-convenience o’clock on the dot every time – but the story moved along well enough that I didn’t mind as much as I might have normally.

And though I appreciated that Alice was the story of one abused woman saving others, I was bothered by the fact that almost every single one of those other women was utterly lacking in agency. They were helpless, and often voiceless, only happening out of their terrible situations because Alice found it in herself to save them. The few women that she didn’t personally free only escaped because of the kindness of men who “fell in love” with them, in a skeevy enough power imbalance that it totally deserves those quotation marks.

It was incredibly frustrating, because the portrayal was so heavily weighted in the one direction. The women, often impoverished and/or sex workers, were props, symbols of Exceptional Upper-Class Alice’s development, something that I will never enjoy, even when it’s in another woman’s story.

The book was also entirely devoid of poc/lgbt characters, although given what a traumatic shitfest it was for the white ladies, you might almost consider that a blessing.

So yeah, I just can’t with this book. I can see where it might have appeal for someone else, but for me the violence was too needlessly grotesque to overlook for any of its more positive qualities. This isn’t the kind of book I’m interested in reading, and I will be happy to wrap up this review and never have to think about it ever again.

TWO STARS

Two Stars

 

2 Responses

  1. Stacy Genobles

    October 9, 2015 12:44 am, Reply

    Thank you for using Trigger Warnings to prep me for this review and for providing enough details to know why this book would trouble me, but not so much info that I would get a panic response.

    So this is such a useful review, because otherwise I met have borrowed this from library since I liked the Jabberwocky poem and have a fondness for cute talking animals, fantasy, paranormal, etc.

    But this update on Alice and the Rabbit and everything is the opposite of what I’d want or could handle in a retelling.

    I’d never be able to finish a story that violence/torture graphic and rape-y, you being able to do so speaks volume of you (and this site’s) courage and dedication to book reviews.

  2. Azure

    October 17, 2015 1:05 pm, Reply

    So someone played American McGee’s Alice: Madness Returns and turned the rape subtext and implications up by eleven. I wouldn’t this interpretation, but the gratuitous amounts of rape really put me off reading. It’s like a Sword of Truth book, only with Alice in Wonderland. I wonder if Alice gives chapter-long speeches.

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