Love thy Neighbour – Alice and the Fly by James Rice

aliceAlice and the Fly is causing a stir in the publishing world. Written by someone at the coalface (a Waterstones employee), it’s a tale reminiscent of the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and last year’s Costa Winner The Shock of the Fall. It’s a debut with some stellar hype, but is it worthy of it? On balance, I would say, yes.

The narrator’s voice reminded me of my 2013 favourite The Universe Vs Alex Woods. Both are gently humorous tales, narrated by a teenage boy with a singular view of the world. Here though, Greg is not simply an intelligent loner. He is one step disconnected from the rest of us. There is clearly something not altogether right about him. We are reading his diary, written on the suggestion of a teacher to help Greg understand himself. His classmates call him psycho and he has a morbid fear of spiders, referred to only as ‘Them’. It’s only towards the end of the book that we learn fully what is the matter with Greg, but we know from the outset that he is a deeply troubled teenager.

I worked in Waterstones for a few years and pretty much everybody there was writing a book. James Rice probably had more chance than most of seeing his dream become reality, having completed an MA in Writing. The book does have a creative writing graduate feel to it, though whether I’d have noticed if I hadn’t known in advance, I couldn’t say. It’s certainly a cleverly constructed tale. Rice is an expert in showing rather than telling. The central mystery of the book is cleverly drip fed to the reader. It holds the attention beautifully. Even at the end, we’re still not told everything; just given enough pieces to build our own jigsaw.

As the book progresses the reader is pulled into Greg’s world and it’s impossible not to feel great empathy for him. Empathy the other characters in the book, even his own family, sadly lack. Empathy that very few of us (including myself) would feel if we encountered Greg in real life. This is the aspect I liked most about the book, and the area where I feel the novel felt most like it was the product of a creative writing graduate.  Not for nothing was Greg’s English class studying An Inspector Calls. One of the novel’s central themes focuses on the idea expounded in Preistley’s play. The idea that not enough people get involved.

Greg is largely ignored. He is a problem people hope will go away. But it’s not just him. Alice, Greg’s grandmother and a neighbour are all, to greater or lesser degrees, victims of indifference. Even a teenage party gets the treatment. Time and again the idea of indifference feeds back into the narrative. Interspersed between Greg’s diary extracts are the transcripts from police interviews.  In a curious inversion of An Inspector Calls, the policeman tells those he’s interviewing,  ‘It’s not your fault’. Yet really it is. No one individual is wholly responsible for the seismic events of the novel, but all of us are culpable. In the twenty-first century, where we are all connected, never unable to communicate with one another, we rarely reach out to others. We rarely stop to help.

The biggest thing I took away from Alice and the Fly, is how much better the world would be if we looked out for each other a little more. So profoundly does Rice make his point, it’s prompted me to look hard about how I interact with the world around me. I consider myself a empathetic character. I care about people, their feelings and my place in the world. I’m also a hand-wringer, often crippled by indecision, hating to interfere. In Alice in the Fly a number of lives would be made better, if people, sometimes specific a person, but mostly just anybody, had interfered. The idea that we can each make a difference is a powerful one.

Reading Alice and the Fly was like watching a car crash in slow motion. I haven’t read one of those for a while. These type of books are almost too painful to read, but remain utterly compelling. It’s nigh on impossible to tear your eyes from the page, as you enter the book’s final third and Greg spirals towards well-meaning disaster. Alice and the Fly is an excellent book that I think will find a great following during 2015. I have no doubt it will be featuring on Christmas round-ups at the end of year, and more than likely appearing at a book group near you. This is great storytelling providing plenty of food for thought and opportunity for discussion. Full marks to Mr Rice.

This book was sent to me as part of the Amazon Vine program.   

 

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