Bad Alice

This is a brave novel in many respects, not least because of its narrative experiments, but mainly because of the manner in which it foregrounds two children’s attempts to deal with a difficult and sensitive topic shrouded in secrecy and silence. Ordinary means of communication fail the young protagonist Alice – bad Alice – and anyway, her credibility is in question. That she has a mouth like a sewer is beyond question, and her unpleasantness is compounded by her awkwardness and social unattractiveness. Yet, from the beginning, Ure succeeds in making her predicament poignant. We meet her through the tale told by the book’s narrator, Duffy, who has his own troubles. He suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, which limits his command of language, he’s abandoned by his father, he’s staying with his Nan. Duffy’s slow realisation of the true nature of Alice’s trouble and of its only resolution (she must disclose the abuse) is accompanied by an imperceptible rise in the children’s spirits. The story offers no sentimental conclusion – the friends part, children are put in care – but the future is infused with a small hope, children too are seen to be capable of exercising power, and articulation as a tool of resolution is affirmed. The content, however, isn’t the whole story – or stories, since Ure constructs the malice in blunderland (a Ure pun, not mine) out of several narrative strands. There’s the ostensible tale of Duffy and bad Alice, and their recourse to the fox’s den (a human-sized rabbit burrow at the end of the garden) in which it is possible to reassemble the jigsaw of their lives through a looking glass. We glimpse the fox’s story also, but from a framing distance. There’s the tale that bad Alice writes, unashamedly stealing Lewis Carroll’s mood, mode and actors, and there’s Alice’s alter ego’s take on situations. By putting the real through the labyrinthine tunnels of fiction and nonsense verse, it seems that it can be hollowed out and be made transparent to the truth. Metafiction, it seems, is the new didact. If there is one problem with this theory as it’s practised in Bad Alice, it is that its agenda is too apparent, and the book’s narrative structure is as self-regarding as the utilities on the Pompidou Centre. Narrative experimentation per se is no longer exciting: dialoguing narratives and intertextual high jinks have all been seen before. The issue is whether the reader is persuaded – of the verisimilitude of the reality evoked, or that disbelief might usefully be suspended in the inset fantasy tale, and whether the best words and images are in the best order. We enjoy the cleverness of the anti-Alice in the neo-Carroll inset tale, but we are hardly convinced that the story could have been constructed by a small child. The tone is too adult, too self-consciously literary. The reader may be willing to concede that if children could write such elegant and poised stories as bad Alice purported to, then this would indeed be a useful way to tell the taboo tale. Duffy’s advice, that Alice confide in Childline, is less imaginative, and anyway, she’s incapable of speaking the unspeakable. So the book’s ultimate message may be more pessimistic than it appears on first sight. Could be read by children over 10.