Alice. Oh, Alice. Where to begin with you and she who tells your story? The first book then in our Furrowed Middlebrow Challenge is Alice by Elizabeth Eliot. And when I finally switched my Kindle off after reading the last line, I felt such huge feelings that frankly I was bewildered for this is not a book that dallies with them along the way. Of course this is a review of sorts and I do not want to give anything away, suffice to say that the book you think you are about to read in the first few chapters is not the book you will find yourself holding at the end.
We begin then with Margaret, the fourteen year old daughter of a monied bohemian mother, attending what she describes as a finishing school where she and her closest friend Alice are expected to speak French at all times and the head-girl is pompous, plump and eager. So far, so very Angela Brazil.
But this is not a boarding school story of the kind so many of us grew up with, but is instead the breathless documentation of a life, as told by Margaret who recounts the next decade or so through a whirlwind of social gatherings, tracing as she does the story of Alice, a beautiful alley-cat from good stock, who from the very beginning seems beget by a fierce knowing that has her lashing out, reacting to all manner of impulsive thought and at one point beating somebody about the person with a hairbrush. Alice herself later seemingly so emotionally injured from an incident with her wanton sister, that it seems to trigger in her the kind of disappointment in life that she seems incapable of rationalising.
And so begins a book peopled by those playing bit parts in Margaret and Alice’s life. A book told with all the breathless, deceptively empty recounting of a child: “that happened, and then this!”. For this and that keep happening with a sort of elegant, relentless and occasionally madcap fury (case in point, at one point there are monkeys) and along the way, as together the girls are presented for the season, survive what is described as a “period of decay” and grow up in ways that disappoint their respective parents, the only sure thing is a quiet sense of foreboding wrapped in delightful observation of a society between wars (“But the servants! Anything might happen to them! They might go in a train to Woolwich and meet the love of their lives, or be murdered almost for the asking. Not that one wanted to be murdered exactly, but there was frustration in being denied the possibility“).
For this is a book, I think about existential fear, and it is a theme repeated almost from the beginning, and revisited often for to Alice is seems the world is wobbly and might float way at an any point while everyone else in her circle attend to life with a kind of matter of fact stoicism, best described by Margaret who at one point asks, “What is there to be frightened of in a world where sheets lasted more than fifty years?”
Alice doesn’t know. Or at least if she does her fear cannot be quantified by either the reader or those in her story who carry her along on a wave of endless worry as they question what will become of her and over and over again, debate the wisdom of ill-advised decision and a tendency to surround herself with those drawn to her magnetic personality for their own gain. For to Margaret, as she traces how Alice gradually slips away from her, “frightened and wretched”, the path to her friends happiness is obvious, but Alice is singularly incapable of grasping it and her character so shadowy that we never really come to understand her, beyond being called upon to read between the lines of her young angst – “If nothing’s permanent I don’t see the point in being alive. What’s the point of being hurt all the time? If it is was something that would last, then it wouldn’t matter. But the way things are, one is tortured for no reason“
But then this probably true of most of the characters in the book. They are never fully fleshed out, though many of the observations within are laugh out loud funny (“Men, she said, were very foolish. Take Harold now. She and Alice took Harold for a bit.”) and more than enough to give layers to what could otherwise be cardboard. While Margaret reports her own life events with all the interest she might bestow on announcing she has just eaten a tangerine, slipping them in along the way as if they are of very little consequence, it is about Alice that she concerns herself, and both we as readers, and those who encounter her “suspect something we cannot get at“.
The book ambles through a trajectory quite specific I suppose to its place in both society and time, but in Alice, in the someone at a distance that she becomes for us and for Margaret, (despite our narrator’s best efforts), there is something missing. Something at once so big and so essential and a need so overwhelmingly all consuming that even success in a field that is probably the antithesis of what might help, is not enough to counteract it.
And oh but it hurts. And I was taken aback for the book comes to an abrupt, if not inevitable stop. And though I often find myself reading books abundant with sorrow and guts, and this has none of that ugly, there is instead a peaceful, gaping hole.
Alice is an odd book. It defies explanation in its occasionally giddy simplicity, and it would be easy to become irritated by the sheer amount of characters and lack of detail about the hows and whys of what comes to pass as the years skip by, but by the end of it I wanted to go back and read it all over again.
To trace those very whys for they are there in almost every line Alice mutters along the way.
The Furrowed Middlebrow Challenge
This was the first of my reviews for the book challenge I am running here at BrocanteHome.
You can read more about the challenge here, or join our lovely new bookclub here on the site. There is neither a time limit, nor any pressure to submit your thoughts and you can join in or leave your own review in the forum whenever you want to.