Alice and the Fly by James Rice book cover
Alice and the Fly (2015) by James Rice is a novel of isolation and obsessions, love and families. Greg is a loner, a teenager who doesn’t quite fit in. Diagnosed with schizophrenia and with a crippling phobia of spiders, he bounces from a loveless home life where he is largely ignored by his adulterous plastic surgeon father, depressed and painfully socially aware mother, and dance-obsessed sister to school where the only attention he garners is from bullies who label him a ‘psycho’. The one bright light in Greg’s rather gloomy world is Alice, a girl at his school. Greg dreams of sweeping Alice off her feet and running away to a better life with her like in one of the classic movies Greg watches on old videos in his bedroom. The problem is that Alice barely knows Greg exists. She lives with her violent father in the Pitt, a sink estate, where many of Greg’s schoolmates live, and thinks little of the loner kid who rides the same bus as her every day. Told through diary entries, Greg’s efforts to win Alice are recorded in painful detail, he more an observer of her life than a suitor. However, when transcripts from police interviews appear, interspersed with Greg’s diary entries, it becomes clear that something has gone terribly wrong. Quite what this is remains a mystery until the novel’s conclusion.

Inevitably, Alice and the Fly will be compared to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, both of which have a character struggling with mental illness at their centre. For all that Alice and the Fly is told from Greg’s perspective, however, it is as much concerned with the very ordinary failings of the characters around him as with Greg’s own difficulties. He may be the archetypal outsider – bullied, misunderstood, unable to reach out for human connection – but all of the characters, it becomes apparent, are locked in their own, isolated worlds, both lonely and consciously self-absorbed.

This landscape, where people live psychically apart even when they are physically close, allows Rice to explore a wide-range of issues, from casual adultery to social inequality, bad and abusive parenting to mental illness. Even Greg, in the haze of his phobia, deals with very typical teenage issues: unrequited love, a fear and confusion over sexual love as opposed to romantic love, a want to fit in with his peers while disdaining much about what that means.

As the story develops, it becomes clear that there have been incidents of violence in Greg’s past, which, it is assumed, foreshadow the unexplained event that hangs over the whole novel, which the police interviews throughout allude to. For all that Greg is humanised throughout the narrative, however, it is inescapable that schizophrenia is again depicted as producing violent and dangerous episodes. The novel should be read as a warning about what can happen when people, not just Greg, are ignored, by family, support networks, or society as a whole. After all, the indifference Greg’s family show to him and his condition is just a microcosm of the wider community that lets vast swathes of people fall into despair and poverty, hiding them in estates like the Pitt, excusing away their unhappiness by slapping labels onto them or otherwise overlooking their being cut adrift from society.

As a storytelling vehicle, the diary style is sporadically successful. For the most part, Greg’s stream of consciousness passages are well done, however, at times literary techniques rather detract from the overall notion. When one is presented with a chapter-long sentence to represent the anxiety of ideas spilt onto the page, or an absence of punctuation and poor spacing to represent the diary being written at night-time, it is hard not to appreciate the idea but these isolated efforts become a little irritating after a while, more a piece of creative writing flair than a necessary part of the narrative (were they to be used more consistently throughout this may feel less like the case). Indeed, when chapters are cut short because Greg has, presumably, collapsed, one wonders why he would exhibit the anxiety of the moment described when later writing about it in his diary, and why he could not go back to complete the sections later on. In this way, the diary conceit becomes a little muddled with a straight first-person narrative where events would be relayed as they happened rather than at a distance. More problematic are the transcripts from the police interviews. Aside from the fact that they sit incongruously interspersed throughout a diary – a necessity to the plot not the diary as a document (the drip-feed of information breaks the suspension of disbelief in these moments) – the dialogue often feels contrived and very clunky in transcribed form.

That said, Rice writes his main character well. Greg’s voice is strong and while his behaviour is sometimes a little inconsistent (he is not the only character whose behaviour stretches credulity at times), his story is told in a very humane way. The central mystery – the event to which the police interviews relate – keeps the reader engaged with the story despite being relatively easy to predict in its nature if not its detail. There are some strong metaphors too, ranging from the big to the minute, and Greg’s increasing fantasies turn the already dystopic world he inhabits into a space where nothing seems quite real.

Throughout the narrative, Greg refers to Finner’s Island, a place that seems to represent hope for him but which, it becomes clear, is also a place where violence is located. In a strange and poetic final chapter, the reader is left to unpick a rather opaque end to the book.

If this is a novel about “[f]inding love, in any of its forms, and nurturing it,” then it is not through any definite affirmation of love in the story. The narrative is, in fact, heavy for the absence of love and it is this absence that makes one acutely aware of its value. With an injection of love, the indifferent and often cruel world that Greg inhabits would be a very different place and his personal story would be markedly changed, filled with real connections rather than imagined ones.

It is clear the Rice understands the mechanics of fiction well and he has built a well-structured book, if one that, at times, runs the risk of literary techniques being a little too overt where they might be more neatly woven into the story. The slightly dystopic edge to the world coupled with Greg’s age give Alice and the Fly the feel of a YA novel, but whatever age it is pitched at, it is a novel that a range of readers will enjoy.

I enjoyed this but possibly not as much as I was expecting to. It's a really engaging read, but everything felt a bit more contrived and constructed than I like - it's hard to explain: sometimes you can feel the mechanics of fiction too close to the surface of a book and it unsettles you.

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