May 31, 2012


by Helen Smith  
189 pages, Mariner Books

Review by Marc Nash

"Alison Wonderland" is a slyly subversive book. Therefore depending on a reader's preconceptions, they will either delight in it like me or I suspect, the other pole of response is to be somewhat baffled by it.

Alison Temple is also known as Alison Wonderland. She attempts to reinvent herself after discovering her spouse is unfaithful to her. But you can only change certain superficial things about your personality, not your deepest inner core. Alison operates on two levels, the confident, professional private investigator (cases of marital infidelity and politically sensitive industrial espionage); and the inner city single girl to whom things happen rather than her driving events forward in a search for love and fulfilment.

Part of the novel is a love letter to London. A dualistic wonderland in and below the level of vision and comprehension. Dark forces are at work, forces that invade her personal life and lead her to go on the run in a very sedate road trip to Weymouth, fuelled by sweets and chocolates from Woolworths and roadside garages. A road trip undertaken with her best friend Taron, a sexy Clubber and girl about London town, but behind which is a romantic, off-kilter spiritual woman who is also a pathological liar and fantasist. If Alison herself is a character the author has reined in, Taron is a freewheeling, wildly comic invention. The two spark off one another perfectly, Taron in her madcap schemes such as seeking to find an abandoned newborn to offer as a gift to her witch mother to help her failing powers, Alison all practicalities of how to care for it with nappies and milk and consequent musings on her own love life and future progeny. These two single girls pursuing a night out in a Weymouth club is perhaps the highlight set-piece scene in the book. An absolute hoot and a rave as they desperately seek the means of pleasure within a very desultory pleasure palace indeed.

The narrative of the book means that it avoids having set-piece scenes on the whole. Some chapters veer vertiginously so that there is seemingly no link to what has just preceded, though this settles down from about halfway through the novel. Again this is the subversive hue of the book. No clear genres. No fully defined plot arc. Characters who are more real and yet somehow ethereal as they float through the novel synchronously to events. These are people just trying to live their lives and just as Alison in her work has to spy and throw the light on the people she has under scrutiny, so the author has a similar spotlight cast on Alison and her friends. Sometimes they are in the full illumination of the spotlight, sometimes their activities are barely caught in its margins. Personally I found this very satisfying. The human scale was perfectly rendered, rather than fictional devices and conceits having to be employed to resolve things or hurry the action along.

Ultimately this is a book about whether the characters inhabit their lives as an active, conscious decision, or live adrift within it, as events and other people pass through, unable to affect anything much in the way of interaction or relationship with them. Which side of the looking glass do you want to live on? "I can't do anything spontaneous, like going to the pictures or meeting up for a drink with friends and it makes me feel frustrated and powerless. I might just as well be standing at the window watching for my husband again". There is little trite redemption within these pages. Instead the reader is left painting scenarios of minor triumphs and gnawing regrets that the characters continue to experience beyond the life of the book. And that I think is no mean triumph of the novel itself. And a little subversive too, in its own way.

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