Alice and the Fly by James Rice

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Reviewed by Meghan

Alice and the Fly opens with Greg, a very shy, awkward teen boy who is deathly afraid of Them – spiders. This fear permeates many of his thoughts, and amongst a few other things, like a lisp and fits, makes him a complete and total outcast who virtually never speaks to anyone. But that doesn’t stop him from having the same feelings and impulses a normal teenage boy does. He thinks, and feels, and wants to share his life with someone somehow, so he does this in the form of a diary to a pretty girl he likes. This is what we read, gaining access to Greg’s innermost thoughts while only intermittently experiencing others’ thoughts of him.

Just as the summary of this book is hard to write, so too is any review of it. It’s extremely affecting, but difficult to describe. The story is revealed very slowly, mainly because Greg’s diary is interlaced with interviews done after an unknown event. In this way, we get to know him mainly through his own eyes, but also through the eyes of others. This is a heartbreaking way of telling the story, really effectively getting across how very different someone can be on the inside. Greg is isolated, but he both does and doesn’t want to be, something that the people around him don’t realize at all. It casts a fresh perspective on the way we treat those we consider to be different, especially the mentally ill, who may look or act differently but are still so human.

At the same time it’s difficult to read and understand the lengths he goes to assuage his fears and keep Them out. The actions he takes are completely outside what most of us would ever have a chance of doing. But most of us have some sort of at least partly irrational fear, like of spiders or of flying, so the blind terror of something that probably isn’t actually going to kill us is familiar enough to make sure we’re not completely alienated from Greg.

This book is designed to make us uncomfortable, to make us think about how we treat people. It costs so little to be friendly yet we can be so horrible to someone we perceive as different from us. Greg’s mind is not an easy place to be, but it’s how people treat him that hurts the most, even when he shrugs it off. It is painful, and it is uncomfortable, but it is worth reading.

A lot of the press surrounding this book emphasizes that it’s really about love, not about Greg’s fears or disabilities. I didn’t see this at all at first but eventually came to see this point of view by the end. Greg’s illness doesn’t stop him from loving with all of his being, nor does it stop others from being capable of loving him, even if he is isolated. As his own diary takes such pains to impart, and as readers viewing things from his eyes can tell, he is still just as human as anyone, and it only takes a few genuine interactions with him to realise that.

The book is also about the struggle to put on a front and appear normal, even when we really aren’t, even when no one is. Greg’s family is far from normal, but they go to great lengths to pretend, and to project an image of perfection and happiness rather than addressing any of the causes behind their root misery. Nor is all of it to do with Greg and his illness, although that certainly doesn’t make the problems they already have go away. His family’s willingness to ignore very obvious issues is part of what results in the final piece of the plot falling into place. It’s probably something we can all relate to in one way or another, especially in the age of social media. The front that many people project on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter doesn’t always bear the closest resemblance to the inner workings of their minds and the realities of their lives. These fake fronts can actively harm those who aren’t happy, as unhappy individuals crave what someone else is only projecting. Greg’s parents’ desire to project a perfect image of family life only harms their son more.

I couldn’t say I enjoyed this book, because I don’t think it’s a book to enjoy. It isn’t a book you settle down with after a difficult day; it’s much more likely to make you think and feel. I was certainly drawn to it, intrigued enough to find out what had actually happened, to gain some sort of resolution, but it is hard going. Not technically hard to read in any way, but very affecting. I can see why it’s garnered so much pre-publication and post-publication praise, and I would add my voice to theirs. This is a book that’s worth reading.

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Meghan blogs at Medieval Bookworm

James Rice, Alice and the Fly (Hodder & Stoughton: London, 2015). 978-1444790108, 336 pp., paperback.

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