Friday, 10 April 2009

The End of Alice - A.M. Homes

Read: May 2008

A.M. Homes is a great writer. There can be no doubting that. If you created a chart with the best storytellers at one end, then Homes would certainly be amongst the finest writers at the other. She is exact in her descriptions, concise and beguiling in her pace. Her writing is reminiscent of a modern day F. Scott Fitzgerald in her ability to say a lot in very few words. And if that isn’t enough, she tackles subjects which other authors wouldn’t touch with a bargepole, even it were long, insulated and made of gold.

The End of Alice
is a perfect example of this. There can have been few more controversial novels written in the past twenty years.

A middle aged paedophile serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of a young girl receives an intriguing letter from a nineteen-year-old student home from college for the summer and intent on seducing a twelve-year-old neighbourhood boy. As their correspondence develops, the prisoner, known only as ‘Chappy’ delights in giving her advice on seduction and waits hungrily for her letters detailing her latest exploits, But as the correspondence progresses, the girl forces Chappy to look back at his past, and the case that had him jailed for life: his ‘relationship’ with Alice. And with every page, the duos intentions and delusions grow ever more menacing.

On publication The End of Alice was described by the NSPCC's spokesman, Jim Harding, as “the most vile and perverted novel I've ever read.” It is not only the depiction of the child sexual abuse that caused outrage but the way that the views of the two protagonists are portrayed: they believe their actions are perfectly acceptable. But what Mr. Harding and others seem incapable of realising is that there is a difference between the fictional voice of a character and the novel as a whole. The novel is narrated by a paedophile, it would be pretty stupid to have either him or his correspondant saying how vile their actions are. And thank god there isn’t a nice ending in which the characters accept the falsehood of their views and actions and seek repentance. There is none of that nonsense. And while the protagonists certainly disguss sex with minors, in no way does the novel glorify it. There are also scenes of gay prison rape and parental abuse. It is all thoroughly uncomfortable reading. There is nothing exciting or positive at all.

My only complaint with this book is that I am not sure what Homes is trying to say here. That paedophiles are humans too? That paedophilia is not gender specific? That abuse in childhood generally begets adult abusers? The first two of these are interesting, particularly the inclusion of a, by all appearances normal, teenage girl paedophile. Through this Homes invites the reader to question what abuse is, and even suggests that what we term paedophilia may not always fall into the neat little categories we might like it to. But the third of these ideas is mundane in the extreme. It has been said in everything written from the 1960’s onwards. And the lepidopterist metaphor is almost unbearably clich├ęd.

It is too easy to compare The End of Alice to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, but there are many similarities. Not just in the plot but in the atmosphere, the character of the central protagonist, his academic excellence and even the quality of the language. However, by the same token, The End of Alice, like Lolita is dense. It is not a quick or plot-based read, but subtle, full of easily missed nuance. Nor is it a pleasant read, either for its flow or subject matter. Indeed, if you are in any way offended by anything then it is not the book for you. Homes certainly does not hold anything back. And why should she? If you like your fiction challenging, thought-provoking and gritty, then this is a very good book. Probably not enjoyable, but in its own way, intensely rewarding.

6.5 out of 10

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