Review published on June 26, 2012.Reviewed by Sara Garland
Stories told in the first person are by nature just one person’s point of view and prone to be unreliable. But they offer a wonderful conundrum, does the reader believe the storyteller in their entirety or query if they have a distorted view-point. In other words is everything as at first it may seem? Written with a wonderful literary style Lynne Alexander has produced a novel which is gracious and complex, but beautifully cryptic to keep you guessing all the way.
It is based upon the diaries written by Alice James, a 19th century lady who born into a wealthy and privileged family, who only lived until the age of 43. The youngest of 5 children and the only daughter, at a time when women were provided for and rarely independent. Closest to her two brothers William, a psychologist and Henry a writer, she never married.
Indeed she battled with illness for most of her short adult life. At a time when hysteria was attributed to all unfathomable illnesses, Alice, as is suggested experienced by others in her family, appears to struggle with depression, also coping with extreme pain, often abdominal in nature and limb weakness. However by contrast she was fiercely intelligent, outspoken both at times with an acerbic tongue, but also with a wry sense of humour.
There is much to consider within the book. Is her pain genuine or self manifested? Does she enjoy the attention and attendance such debilitation befits? Keen to write herself, and overshadowed by her 2 brothers, is she the person with the greatest intelligence that she actually inspires and shapes her brother’s fictional material? Her radical and independent female friend Katherine, what is it that keeps her at Alice’s side, when she so starkly has the ability to be influential and successful?
With such a lot to interpret between the relationship between Katherine, William and Alice. There are subtle suggestions of sexuality, between both with Alice but never explicitly said so. Alice is attracted to men, but her attraction to women if any beyond a deep friendship is never made clear. As a character whilst clever, self-deprecating and sharp-witted, she is also manipulative and in some respects highly resilient and forward thinking. Where she continues to derive such thinking is a bit of a mystery as her exposure to other friends and the outside world is very limited. However to do so as impressively as proposed reflects her level of fierce intelligence. How she must have been perceived by others one would imagine would not have been particularly positively. Much gossip and derision must have existed.
Her interactions with the many doctors and mesmerists, make for the more testing experiences, but is kept lightly humorous and fascinating. She frequently shares her irascible thoughts with the reader, but outwardly says that which is appropriate. Conversely in light of her illnesses, she remains strong in the face of much adversity. As conditions such as endometriosis or fybromyalgia have been identified there are diseases today that could explain her described symptoms. Trying to fathom her life, interpret her thoughts and actions is the enjoyable essence of this book. For every viewpoint, you can debate another and for this reason, and the wonderful use of language, mostly forgotten in modern day English, this would make an excellent discussion text for book clubs.