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The End of Alice

Surprise, Surprise 

By Margot Livesey

When it was published in America last year, A. M. Homes's novel was both, widely reviled and widely admired.

Some reviewers claimed to be deeply shocked, while others argued that The End of Alice was performing the traditional functions of the novel: to raise deep moral questions and to make us think about the Other. That it was written by a woman only added fuel to the fire.

Since Oedipus Rex, writers have been writing about vile acts and the people who commit them, so what makes this book so shocking? The End of Alice is narrated by a paedophile and murderer serving the twenty-third year of his sentence. A young woman, who shares his predilection for younger members of the opposite sex, begins a correspondence with him. As the novel unfolds, the narrator recounts increasingly graphic sex scenes, both in the prison, where he now resides, and in the past, where he also resides. There is at times an almost Gothic quality to the density and detail of these episodes. "I fill him with my most personal touch, a handy high colonic. My discharge glistens, an opalescence, like mother-of-pearl shining on his pure white ass."

The novel is also shocking in a deeper way, beyond the highly controlled descriptions of what consenting adults do to each other in the name of pain, pleasure and boredom, or even what, adults can do to children. In a world of moral equivocation, paedophilia is one of the last inexcusable crimes (even murder is more often understood in terms of extenuating circumstances). Homes's decision to create this correspondence between two such different paedophiles, opposed not only in age and gender but also in the kind of "explanations" offered for their behaviour, demands that we question our stock responses. The man's explanation is the traditional one, sexual abuse in childhood; the young woman's is more unusual. She partly blames her correspondent. His famous crime made her yearn for a lover who didn't scare her. Here is Homes's opening paragraph:
"Who is she that she should have this afflicted addiction, this oddly acquired taste for the freshest of flesh, to tell a story that will start some of you smirking and smiling, but that will leave other's set afire, determined this nightmare, this horror, must stop. Who is she? What will frighten you most is knowing she is either you or I, one of us." Surprise, surprise.

In various ways, both explicitly and implicitly, The End of Alice asks: do we blame the nineteen-year-old woman in the same way as we blame the older man? In both cases, the children, Matt and Alice, consent. Indeed, Alice is highly complicitous; she climbs into the narrator's bed, feels him up, asks him to hurt her (or so the narrator claims). And if our blame is unequal then what underlines the inequality? "Will I do it again?" the woman asks. "Am I the same as you?"

As the opening paragraph vividly demonstrates, the novel is written with considerable ambition; the narrator is arcane, alliterative, erudite and winy. He often makes fun of his correspondent's teenage style—"It appears not to be in English. I struggle with the language, a pidgin-twisted tongue"—and augments her letters with his own eloquent imaginings. What these imaginings reveal is that, for the narrator, everyone—man and woman, adult and child—is sexmad; only his grandmother (unless I missed something) seems exempt. That all this was engendered by his mother's extraordinary sexual abuse—on a visit to a bath house she uses her young son as a kind of sexual aid—is clearly part of what the novel is telling us. But the unremitting emphasis does occasionally make it hard to know whether to trust him. "I refuse," he warns us when presented with photographs of Alice's body, "to see what they want me to see. I will only see what I want to see, my desire, my vision."

Reading The End of Alice, I sometimes felt the same way. I didn't want to see what the novel was showing me, but finally, like the narrator, I succumbed. Not all readers will want to see A.M. Homes's vision, but those who do will find themselves unmistakably in the presence of the Other.