*** This review was originally posted in The Spectatorial ***
How many characters from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland can you name off the top of your head? It’s alright if you can’t name them all, but you’ll surely get the main ones, like Alice, the Mad Hatter, and the Queen of Hearts—possibly even the Dormouse, if you ponder long enough. But how many of you remember Ada Boyce, Alice’s best friend in the real world, who is mentioned only briefly in the original novel, or Alice’s older sister, whose name has been the source of much speculation? Chances are you either didn’t notice them or they sit in a dusty back corner of your mind.
This is exactly what Gregory Maguire set out to change with his new novel.
After Alice is not your typical retelling of a beloved classic. It doesn’t focus on Alice—her only dialogue consists of no more than five lines near the end of the book—and it doesn’t simply transpose the ‘Wonderland formula’ onto a different time period.
Instead, the focus is primarily on Ada Boyce and her journey of self-discovery while going after her friend Alice. Ada’s journey through Wonderland is a much calmer one, with quirkier run-ins with familiar characters like the White Knight and the Cheshire Cat, whose wisdom—while as timeless as ever—is articulated with a more sarcastic tone that’ll surely make you chuckle. However, not all of the beloved stars from the original make it into this adaptation, with characters such as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum only being indirectly mentioned.
For loyal fans of Carroll these absences might be a shock—how does one fare without such vital characters? That, however, is the beauty of the novel. Maguire isn’t proposing a mere head-first dive back down the rabbit hole with all the same tricks. Instead the reader is greeted with well-crafted additions and a ‘behind the scenes’ atmosphere. What did the Wonderlanders do once Alice’s spotlight moved on? Such are the angles on which the novel shines some light.
While Ada is off on her own adventure, the often-overlooked aspects of the original story are touched upon: what was happening in the world above? Surely the adults noticed the absence of a child, or—in this case—three children!
The novel’s depictions of Lydia, Alice’s older sister as named by Maguire, and Miss Armstrong, the governess of the Boyce household, introduce the reader to the world of adult worries. Their stories are interwoven to fill in the time-frame during Ada’s journey through Wonderland, giving the writing a cinematic quality.
By far the most intriguing addition to the novel is the character of Siam. He is a dark-skinned boy who is rescued from the slave society of America and accompanies Josiah Winter, another new character, on his journey to England. Siam was the answer to the one frustration I always had as a child: who the heck in their right mind would want to leave Wonderland? He is particularly worth paying attention to; from his complex past to his unusual actions in the present. His decision at the end of the novel spoke to the child in me and appeased her, as this question will forever be the greatest issue I have with Carroll.
After Alice is a great new take on the classic, although not quite the sequel it was marketed to be. The number of characters and stories are often overwhelming, and some chapters that attempt to add a philosophical layer to the story fail to come across as such. But ultimately, that isn’t the point of this novel. Rather, it offers you another visit into a beloved literary world from a new angle, one that does not sacrifice the familiar, witty humour and confusing wisdom that defines the original.