Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The End of Alice by A. M. Homes

(256pp; £7.99; Granta Books, 1997)

If someone had given A. M. Homes the brief -

"Write a short novel exploring at least three forms of sexual activity considered deviant. Be as graphic as you can; break as many taboos as you like. Make sure a good 30% of readers won't be able to finish it."

- then she could hardly have produced a more intense, shocking novel than she has. Ali Smith described it as a flipside to The Great Gatsby, showing the grotesque side of "doomed yearning" that characterises many great American novels. A customer, according to a friend of mine, returned it to the bookshop where I used to work, claiming it made her physically ill. Reading it in the Orchard cafe in Grantchester in the blazing sun of a Sunday morning, surrounded by giggling families, I was gripped by waves of furtive guilt - and thrilled nausea.

The plot has four strands, each dealing with a new and delicate issue.

A male narrator in his sixties reminisces about his seduction, and eventual murder, of a twelve-year-old girl named Alice, who, by his account, was just as instrumental in initiating and perpetuating the relationship as he (plain old paedophilia).

His memory drifts sporadically back to his childhood, when he was abused by his mentally deteriorating mother (incestuous paedophilia).

He has now in prison for twenty-six years, and spends a lot of time imagining a narrative for his correspondent, a nineteen-year-old girl now engrossed in carrying out her own seduction of a pubescent boy, including a pretty disgusting scene where she eats one of his scabs. Her brief missives, and the vivid, detailed conclusions he draws, form the third strand (female paedophilia, rarer and more refined ...!).

The final thread in this sordid, though expertly woven, braid is the details of the narrator's time in prison, including how he has become the plaything of his gay murderer cellmate (homosexual rape, voyeurism). It's like Lolita, with the volume turned up, and probably the most shocking book I have ever read.

Nine times out of ten, the novel I've just described would be a disaster. Luckily, it was in the hands of a dangerous author who can make the unimaginably appalling seem banal, humorous - and attractive. A. M. Homes is an author who understands the fraught, ambivalent relationship we have with our society's taboos, and she capitalises on it. It's a troubling result. As with Lolita, I frequently had to remind myself exactly what my moral standpoint on such events was, because I was being so insistently besieged.

One point about the style before I begin urging you to read this novel. Homes occasionally repeats verbatim a few lines, even a chunk, as the narrator remembers and re-remembers. His memories are already crystallised, instantly accessible, and replaying them is a quick, repeatable process. Is it overly Freudian to draw similarities between this experience, this regular release of mental energy, and the relief gained through masturbation? The narrator is near-impotent during his time in prison, after all. It's a thought I'll leave you with, and now get on with the recommendation ---

This is a book to challenge yourself with, to test yourself, to see how mentally robust you really are. I read it pretty slowly, which is suggestive in itself, but I managed to get through it without vomiting, and without ceasing to be aware that I was reading an extraordinary piece of work. (But maybe avoid the bit with the scab-munching.)

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