In reading Gregory Maguire’s new novel, “After Alice,” it helps to have a working knowledge of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass.” Like Maguire’s novel “Wicked,” in which he reimagined the world of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” from the Wicked Witch’s point of view, “After Alice” deconstructs and reconfigures Carroll’s fanciful classics from other perspectives, with scarcely a trace of the title character. Instead, we learn of Alice’s journey primarily through the experiences of two characters who set out “after Alice” — her best friend, Ada, who trips down the same rabbit hole, and Alice’s 15-year-old sister, Lydia, who was assigned, above ground, to keep a watchful eye on the youthful wanderer.
Neither figure is particularly appealing. Lydia is rather self-centered, a bit shallow, ill-tempered and mean-spirited at times, though she reflects, “It’s not easy to be half of anything. Half-adult/half-child is a state with no reliable signposts.” Ada is a lonely rheumatic child with a crooked spine confined to an iron corset during her waking hours. “Scraping against life,” she is prone to a lurching gait and frequent clumsiness, though her loyalty and dogged determination in finding her friend are admirable.
Each character provides a different perspective. Through Lydia, we get a picture of the strictures and mores of Victorian life in the 1860s. Maguire seeds this historical setting with gorgeously vivid descriptions, archly droll humor, and numerous tangential threads, including ruminations of Charles Darwin, who just happens to be paying a condolence call to Lydia’s widowed father on the adventurous day in question. Ada is our entree to Alice’s fantasy world. One of the novel’s most heartening conceits is that as Ada tumbles, she magically springs free of the “portable prison” of her corset and spends her adventure in a state of liberating physical grace.
Chapters alternate between Lydia’s reality and Ada’s fantasy, and “After Alice” is stunningly clever in its conflation of fairy tales, the mix and match of characters, woven throughout with references to philosophical ideas, the social issues of the day, and attitudes of the time. (Trying to avoid a spoiler here, but the transmutation of a dreaded real life encumbrance into a fearsome fantasy world monster is rather brilliant.) And Maguire impressively channels Carroll’s penchant for humorous wordplay, literary nonsense, and logic games, though sometimes he overdoes the fancy and dialogue can get a bit tedious.
But where Carroll’s classics briskly plunge readers into vividly imagined fantastical worlds that keep us frantically turning pages to find out what happened next, Maguire takes a more considered, reflective approach. While often whimsical and thought-provoking, it’s also messy and lacking in dramatic urgency. As Ada observed of her own struggle, “The difficulty was in assembling such contrary information into coherence.” Flipping between the two main protagonists, with one plotline taking place in the real world and the other in a subterranean, nonsensical world filled with all manner of bizarrely unusual creatures and illogical rules, Maguire subverts narrative flow, and the alternating between the two can be a bit jarring.
Then, just when we think we’ve got a handle on all this, “Part the Second” introduces another major character’s perspective. Siam, a young escaped slave traveling with the American accompanying Darwin, is the child who journeys “through the looking-glass,” adding yet another adventure that Maguire doesn’t quite tie up by work’s end.
With it’s sophisticated references and convoluted structure, “After Alice” is definitely not for kids, unlike Carroll’s original classics. But one of the happy byproducts of “After Alice” is that it will send curious readers back to these masterful stories, hopefully to renew their sense of childlike glee and wonder.
By Gregory Maguire
Morrow, 273 pp., $26.99
Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.