Sunday, March 01, 2009

The End of Alice by A. M. Homes

The End of Alice is a difficult book. It confronts readers on territory they would rather not admit to inhabiting; it forces issues normally silenced; it raises the prospect that all of us, maybe, in different circumstances… well, these things are difficult to talk about, it’s a form of damage and I’m not like that, voyeurism is one thing, prurience, we all do to some extent, but not that, no more, not me…

The main character is a paedophile, now ageing after twenty-three years in prison for his crimes, and approaching a parole board hearing which might free him. Amongst the plethora of correspondence he receives, and has done throughout his years of incarceration, are letters from a nineteen year-old girl who, in sweetly reasonable terms, tells him of her plans to seduce a ten year old boy in her neighbourhood. At first, it is any ten-year old, then she fixes on a particular child, and she puts her plan into action, and her letters become increasingly explicit as she unfolds her story. Interwoven with this are the prisoner’s memories, focusing with increasing clarity on the story of Alice, the affair with Alice, the end of Alice, the sordid and bloody events which have brought him to this pass.

Homes is in dangerous, though illustrious territory here. Lolita is the obvious comparison, but Bret Easton Ellis and others have tried to examine the truth behind criminality and moral degeneracy. There is a long tradition of confronting taboos through literature – all the way back, in fact, to Oedipus himself – and using the word to seek to understand the deed. But Homes instils her story with a deeply unsettling sense of wonder. This novel is not an illustration, it is a mirror. And there are big questions to ask of this mirror: what is it distorting?; how much is it distorting?; how much of this is, indeed, reality?

We don’t know, first of all, whether the girl’s story is true or fabricated. We don’t, as the story progresses, ultimately know even whether the girl is real, or simply a part of the prisoner’s perverted imagination. We don’t know whether his own backstory is real, or at least in the way it is told to us. Paedophiles, after all, are notoriously adept at shifting reality, at using their own narcissism to paint a pastoral scene where should be a vision from Hieronymus Bosch. And, more importantly, making us believe it.

And so, here, we have the notion that Alice, pre-pubescent but startlingly aware, is as much initiator as victim. It seems entirely credible. A dangerously damaged individual herself, it is her misfortune (or fortune, in her eyes, or in the prisoner’s interpretation of her eyes?) to come into contact with one man who can unleash those latent impulses in her. Thus, they begin a torrid affair, mutual, seemingly an affair of equals, and it is told to us in explicit detail – reader as voyeur, as participant, a difficult place to be.

What is clear is that these are deeply damaged individuals. Alice is a tragic soul whose fate, one feels, has been sealed since the day she was born. The prisoner, still violent, still a sexual predator, is an enigmatic character, his wit and learning making him, on the surface, almost appealing. But to the end he remains in denial. The nineteen year-old girl is suffocating in a family which cares too deeply but in too shallow a fashion – and that is a contradiction in terms that will be immediately familiar to thousands of teenagers. Even when she tries to commit suicide by swallowing her mother’s pills, her parents don’t realise what is happening and instead blame her subsequent vomiting on eating something that disagreed with her. Their response is to send her on a trip (alone) to Europe: at once caring and complacent. They worry enough to see there is a problem, but not enough to penetrate what it really is. That could stand for all of the characters in this novel, and it could stand for every one of us. Reader, see yourself.

In one of her letters, the girl asks the prisoner: ‘Am I supposed to feel sorry for you or think you’re grotesque?’ His reply is that ‘a bit of both would be about right.’

And a bit of both it is. This is a chilling, powerful, deeply intelligent novel. It offers no easy avenues. It refuses to allow the prisoner to become our all-purpose, utility hate-object, one of those tabloid creatures on whom we, as a society, can pour all our revulsion and fear and blame. No-one is completely guilty, and nor is anyone completely innocent. To quote the judge-penitent in Camus’s The Fall:

If pimps and thieves were invariably sentenced, all decent people would get to thinking they themselves were constantly innocent, cher Monsieur. And in my opinion… that’s what must be avoided at all costs. Otherwise, everything would be just a joke.

The End of Alice makes us reflect. We are not allowed the comfort of easy answers, simple categories, black and white. And that is no joke.

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