“So why can’t we linger and dream?/Walk with me/Still/Linger on with me/Still” (Still, Alice by Heart, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik).
Unlike my usual reviews, I’m quoting some lyrics from the song “Still” which appears in the Off-Broadway musical Alice by Heart which this book is an adaption of. Why? Because there is nothing quotable in this book. It is written so oddly, so disjointedly that aside from three or four characters I really had no idea who anyone else was or what exactly was going on. One of my favourite niche genres is “kids who cope with trauma by escaping into fantasy realms via books” (here’s looking at you The Neverending Story, The Book of Lost Things, and countless others.) and I expected Alice by Heart to be the same. With the premise of fifteen-year-old Alice Spenser and her best friend Alfred, who happens to be suffering from tuberculosis, are forced to take shelter in an underground tube station during an air raid in 1940s London and with Alice using her and Alfred’s beloved story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to cope through the chaos as the story unwillingly morphs and takes on qualities of the war around them. It sounds promising, it sounds right up my alley, especially since I knew about the Off-Broadway musical first and as a long time musical fan the fact that a book had been written after the musical was intriguing. But Alice by Heart just didn’t do it for me.
Maybe I’m coming at this harshly. I’ve never been a big fan of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, sure I watched the Disney movie but I didn’t actually read the book until I took a Children’s Literature course in university and was underwhelmed by it. If anything I watched this odd version of Alice more than any others and while I enjoyed it it was never a story I really begged to return too. Of all the fairy tale adaptions I’ve read I think this is the first and only Alice one. So maybe I was never meant to enjoy this, maybe me and Alice just don’t click.
As a compliment I’ll say this book felt like an Alice story, and it’s a gorgeous book to look at. I loved the cover, loved the old style of it, and loved the mix of historical pictures of the Blitz as well as the original illustrations interspersed throughout. I also thought the dialogue worked and was charming as Alice stories usually are, but honest to God aside from Alice, Alfred, The Nurse, the Doctor and maybe Tabatha I couldn’t tell you anything about any of the other characters. Even the way Tabatha was written I’m not entirely sure if she’s human or some Jellicle cat person (alright I know she’s a person, but it’s really hammered in that her Wonderland counterpart is the Cheshire Cat), and the fact that I can’t figure out who the characters are, that I couldn’t visualize the setting or even fully understand what was going on is a big problem.
Like other reviewers have said, there’s also a lot of description on Alice’s breasts which is weird. I get that it’s a way to show that Alice is growing up, that she isn’t a kid anymore but there are better ways of doing it than repeatedly mentioning a fifteen-year-olds breasts and how her blouse is too tight. It’s a book, metaphors and similes exist for a reason, be creative.
I’m still intrigued by the musical and my thoughts are that maybe this just wasn’t meant to be turned into a book. I mean, it’s a book adapted to a musical adapted back into a book, it’s a back and forth that just didn’t translate well. I still plan on listening to the soundtrack because the premise is just too good to completely give up on, but sadly Alice by Heart disappointed me. I may not be an Alice fan but there have to be better retellings than this out there.
Publication: February 4th 2020
Pages: 240 pages (Hardcover)
Genre: Fiction, YA, Historical Fiction, Fantasy
My Rating: ⛤⛤
“London, 1940. Amidst the rubble of the Blitz of World War II, fifteen-year-old Alice Spencer and her best friend, Alfred, are forced to take shelter in an underground tube station. Sick with tuberculosis, Alfred is quarantined, with doctors saying he won’t make it through the night. In her desperation to keep him holding on, Alice turns to their favorite pastime: recalling the book that bonded them, and telling the story that she knows by heart–the story of Alice in Wonderland.
What follows is a stunning, fantastical journey that blends Alice’s two worlds: her war-ravaged homeland being held together by nurses and soldiers and Winston Churchill, and her beloved Wonderland, a welcome distraction from the bombs and the death, but a place where one rule always applies: the pages must keep turning. But then the lines between these two worlds begin to blur. Is that a militant Red Cross Nurse demanding that Alice get BACK. TO. HER. BED!, or is it the infamous Queen of Hearts saying…something about her head? Soon, Alice must decide whether to stay in Wonderland forever, or embrace the pain of reality if that’s what it means to grow up.”