BOOK REVIEW The End of Alice by AM Homes (1996)
I read this one because it’s featured on many BookTuber’s “disturbing books” list. It’s certainly… an experience. My feelings about The End of Alice are extremely mixed. On the positive side, it’s written with a literary prose style that’s engaging if you have an ear for language, and I was intrigued enough by the story and characters to keep reading to see how they ended up. However, some elements as well as the overall approach felt far too derivative of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov – perhaps understandable, given that it’s the most iconic novel to deal with this subject matter – while elsewhere the storytelling comes across as frankly juvenile. As if Homes is trying to impress you with how “shocking” she can be. I ultimately found the novel more disgusting than disturbing, and the unreliable narrator wound up undercutting interest in the plot. (I’ll get back to that.)
Speaking of the plot, it’s about a correspondence between a convicted child killer referred to only as “Chappy” and an unnamed 19-year-old woman who is also a paedophile, and planning to abuse a 12-year-old boy under the guise of giving him tennis lessons. This is interspersed with such charming interludes as prison sex, including gang rape, and the slow unfolding of what it is that Chappy did to the titular Alice.
(In what feels like a pretty shallow exploitation of the Lewis Carroll rumours about his inspiration for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The End of Alice refers to that novel a few times and opens with a quote from Carroll about how a stopped clock is right twice a day. I don’t really know what that has to do with the story.)
You can see why this book was controversial, with the UK’s National Service for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children pushing to have it banned, their spokesman calling it “the most vile and perverted novel I’ve ever read.” In fairness to Homes, it’s clearly not her intention to titillate, and she does bring a level of humanity to the characters and situation.
The book is disjointedly structured, ambling along with Chappy and the young woman’s back-and-forth with little glimpses of his past and hers, before the story of Alice finally starts tumbling out at breakneck speed in the third act. This does give the plot the slight impression of being about nothing but two perverts comparing notes for most of it, before suddenly remembering that it needs to go somewhere.
Neither of the two central characters is likeable, obviously, but an authentic feeling of diseased and tragic psychology is evoked for Chappy, allowing us to understand the roots of his depraved urges. It was also brave of Homes to tackle the subject of female paedophilia, a theme I can only remember seeing seriously tackled in maybe two other works of fiction, “It Grows on You” by Stephen King (from Nightmares and Dreamscapes) and The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky.
The unnamed young woman is kind of an indistinct figure, partly because we mostly only see her through Chappy’s relation of her letters, which are interrupted by disturbed fantasies he has about her. I can see why this technique might have been interesting, but I would have preferred a more epistolary approach, alternating letters in full from both her and him as well as his private thoughts. In the end, she’s just a stereotype of an upper-middle-class teenager whose parents are too self-absorbed to deal with her. She’s every bratty girl in a glossy teen drama, basically, but made into a grotesque pervert.
I did like that both their victims were named while they weren’t, emphasising the victims’ humanity. Her victim is called Matthew and in one of the instances of the book being more disgusting than disturbing, she eats his scabs.
That said, the ultimate characterisation of Alice annoyed me. Again, I can see what Homes is going for by having Chappy narrate while blurring the line between what’s real and what’s just his sick fantasy. That’s a direct lift from Lolita (as is the young woman’s paedophilia being rooted in the freak death of a first crush), which makes you see how utterly Humbert Humbert’s selfish actions obliterate Lolita’s humanity.
But the technique doesn’t work as well here because Alice rarely comes across as a real child. We glimpse her too much through Chappy’s self-serving fantasies concerning their time together, and she does things like write quotes from Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath on her sneakers. (As most 12-year-olds do, I’m sure.) She also ties Chappy to a tree after happening upon him naked and acts like a predator during the abuse.
Of course, this is meant to make you reflect on what Chappy is saying and how he’s lying to make himself look like the victim. But because we only find out anything about Alice’s home life (and then not very much) once the story is starting to wrap up in its last 50 to 75 pages, she appears less as a true victim than some strange figment of a sicko’s imagination.
When Lolita sits on the sofa and swings her legs onto Humbert’s lap, you see a real little girl innocently acting like a kid, even as Humbert self-servingly misinterprets her behaviour. With Alice, you just see Chappy.
Homes does rectify this in the book’s closing scene, which is a powerful one that would have served as a knockout punch in a short story. The horror of the end of Alice comes alive and makes us see for a fleeting moment a true victimised child and the unfixable, cowardly, damaged man who destroys her.
The End of Alice isn’t a bad book. It has something to say about how a crime can traumatise a whole community and gives insight into the mind of a broken man who did an unforgivable thing. It’s merely that, if you want to read a work of art that goes to this very worst of places, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov should be your port of call. It does what this book does much better.