‘Alice’ – Christina Henry: A different take/the Grimm state of fairy tale retelling

Fairy tales, original fairy tales, are dark.  The Brothers Grimm stories are violent and come with a lesson.  ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll is not a fairy tale, but it has been granted that status in our culture.    Disney created an innocent and sweet movie based off it. I’m sure you’ve seen it.  Henry’s book isn’t charming and certainly not sweet.  Carroll’s original story isn’t free of its own grim aspects.  Legend/popular opinion is that ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is about the little girl of a friend Carroll knew, Alice Liddell, and was written while Carroll was under the influence of psychedelics.  It isn’t squeaky clean.  Henry takes that and ups the madness quotient.  Alice is in an insane asylum when we meet her.  She speaks of rabbits and tea parties and it gets her locked away.  That is the start of this dark tale. Henry’s world still contains magic but The Caterpillar, The Cheshire Cat, and The Walrus and the Carpenter are not what we have been taught.  They are realities wrapped in small bits of magic and a lot of mental instability.  If you are looking for lighter fare turn around and walk away.  ‘Alice’ isn’t for the faint of heart.

What if Wonderland is a delusion? – a fantasy created by a sixteen-year old girl to deal with a tragic experience her mind didn’t know how to cope with? Her upper class parents didn’t know what to do when their little girl came up missing.  All they wanted was to have her back  but the girl they got back was scarred and raving about rabbits.  When the story didn’t change they committed her not knowing what else to do.  Henry’s story introduces its to Alice, now twenty-six, in a cold cell speaking to her only companion through a mouse-hole.  The man is ‘Hatcher,’ an unstable man said to have murdered his wife, child, and several men in a blood bath with a hatchet.  He has nightmares and fits about the Jabberwocky.  Alice doesn’t believe it exist.  Henry takes her characters, Alice and Hatcher, through escaping the Asylum to the ‘Old City,’ an area abandoned by the upper class and elite, to a criminal element.  It’s where these two characters must go to hunt down the Jabberwocky – something that is either a threat to the entire world or a figment of Hatcher’s imagination.

Some retellings can be considered for children and young adults.  This is not.  The violence and concepts are for an adult audience.  The effects of mental illness, rape, and violence are realistically explored. I was impressed how Henry dealt with the topics and the long-term effects.  It was not eroticized or used for shock factor.  For much of the book I thought there might not be any fantasy element and found myself respecting the choice.  How magic is used, and Alice’s questioning of it’s very possibility, is clever.  Alice, being told she was mentally ill for years made her believe it.  She constantly questions her understanding of what is real as well as what Hatcher believes is real.  This would be true of an institutionalized population.  She also deals with her perception of the world.  She acknowledges her understanding of society is frozen at a 16 year-old perception.  It was when she was institutionalized.

I can’t say I enjoyed this.  ‘Alice’ is a grimdark fairy tale retelling.  It’s not common and it is fascinating.  I am impressed with the concept, the writing, and the tie to Caroll.  I don’t recommend this for everyone.  If you are ready for it, and aware walking into it, it is worthwhile. I respect it.  I would not recommend it outside an adult audience.  It handles sexual abuse, violence, and mental instability well but it’s intricate and handled at a high level.  It’s an interesting psychological study inside the framework of Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland.’  It is good.

I received this book from Netgalley in return for an honest review.


About Steph

As C. S. Lewis said, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” I am an indiscriminate reader. I can find a way to enjoy almost all books. I find they are like people – you can find something endearing in almost every one of them. I love to write reviews. I hope you enjoy them and find them useful. View all posts by Steph

9 responses to “‘Alice’ – Christina Henry: A different take/the Grimm state of fairy tale retelling

  • Tammy

    Definitely not for everyone! That’s what I said in my review as well. I love “dark” but honestly, some parts of this story were too much for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Lisa (@TenaciousReader)

    I do like dark, but glad to know how dark it is so I don’t pick it up with something different in mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Steph

      I do think you would appreciate it. Henry does some fabulous things with it. That said, yes, it is very dark. You’ll walk in prepared though. I’m interested to know your thoughts on it.


  • fromcouchtomoon

    Wow, this sounds brutal, but maybe a clever way to address what some would call Carroll’s unhealthy fixation on Alice. Maybe that’s what the author was going for?


  • DJ (@MyLifeMyBooksMyEscape)

    Such a fascinating take on ‘Alice in Wonderland’! Alice actually being in a insane asylum, feels like it fits so perfect. I’m a fan of grimdark genre, and a retelling of fairy tale as one is something I’d love to read.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum

    My next book to read. I too have to wonder if it is in a way a subtle exploration of Caroll’s fixation with Alice and girl children. I came across his Wikipedia page the other day, prepping for this book by brushing up on some Alice in Wonderland trivia. There’s definitely some interesting, unsettling things.

    Anyway, regarding the book, I’m prepared for it to be pretty dark. That’s what I was hoping for out of an Alice re-telling, actually – the reimaginings of this story I’ve enjoyed have all been pretty macabre, like the American McGee’s Alice game.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Steph

      I think you will like Henry’s book -maybe not like but definitely appreciate. It is absolutely true that Henry is acting upon Carroll’s adult tale wrapped in a children’s story and writing the opposite. If you are interested in a dark version of Alice you have found it.


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