I tend to avoid novels which retell or continue classic stories (why do so many people want to rewrite Pride and Prejudice?), but something about A.C. Wise’s Wendy, Darling caught my attention. Peter Pan is already a book that speaks to children and adults in different ways: reading it, as a grown-up, provokes a sense of discomfort that simmers beneath the sheer joy of its nostalgic anarchy. Wise has grasped that sense of ‘somehow wrong-ness’ and anchored it at the heart of her book, a fierce story of female autonomy, courage and memory. It begins, of course, on a dark night in London, in a nursery, where a small girl sleeps in a bed. A slight, lean shape appears at the nursery window: it’s Peter, come to carry Wendy back to Neverland. But Peter has left it too long. The child in the bed is not Wendy. It’s 1931 and Wendy, now a married woman, is in her room when she feels the warning sense of danger. She runs to the nursery, but she’s too late: Peter has spirited away her daughter, Jane. Outraged by the theft, Wendy can do only one thing: she must gather her courage and go to bring her daughter home.
Wendy has spent her adult life learning to conform: to put Neverland behind her and shape her spirit as society demands. In the aftermath of their own childhood adventure, her brothers John and Michael have forgotten too easily, too quickly. Wendy is the only one who remembered, who clung to her bright memories of Peter and Neverland. She can’t quite remember the point when her brothers began to find her embarrassing. Was it when they lost their parents? Or later, when the world went up in flame and Michael went off to be broken on the fields of Flanders? Throughout, she has tried to remind them about Peter, the mermaids and the delicious freedom of Neverland, but her fervent insistence brought her in the end to St Bernadette’s. Here, among cruel warders and petty deprivations, she’s regarded as a dangerously deluded woman. But Wendy won’t give up. And, when she finds a friend in the heart of that awful place, she begins to hope that she can survive without giving up her self entirely. Given the choice, she would still fly back to Neverland. Peter promised he would come for her. But it has been so long now, so many years. Where is he? How can he have forgotten her?
And then, years later, Jane is taken, instead of her. Wendy has left St Bernadette’s behind her, having managed to convince her brothers that she is well, but now she knows exactly what she must do: go back to Neverland alone. But her return is muted: this magical island of her childhood is marred by flashes of foreboding. She remembers a great secret that Peter once showed her, but the memory shape-shifts, hidden behind a door in her mind that she can’t reopen. What did she see there? It was something horrible, something that she was never meant to see. And now, on the island that she once loved more than anything else, Wendy realises that boys may not grow up, but time passes nevertheless, and all is not well in this place of dreams. Meanwhile, Jane is trying to understand what has brought her to this strange island, where she’s expected to play host to a ragged band of boys, and where her captor, Peter, insists on calling her Wendy. There are games, but all are played to Peter’s rules, and Jane finds that it’s growing more and more difficult not to join in. Something keeps tugging her, inviting her to throw herself into the gleeful game, to give herself up to the sheer pleasure of play. How can she keep a grip on her memory of who she is and the sheer wrongness of her being here at all? In Neverland, it’s all too easy to forget – and who can really trust a boy without a shadow?
Wise brings out the darkness implicit in the story, probing into this world where the games, the food and the very shape of the island are dependent on one sparkling intellect: Peter’s own. And they can change, quickly and without warning, if he is crossed. Here Peter is far from the crowing innocent of Victorian imagination: Wise creates something more coercive and threatening, something positively primal in its antiquity and wilfulness. Hints of this were evident in J.M. Barrie’s original, of course – not for nothing is Peter called ‘Pan’, the god of wild, unconstrained revels. But Wise goes deeper, creating a leader who keeps an iron grip on his creations, who plays out the same story again and again, trapping his Lost Boys, or the pirates, or the Indians, into a cruel cycle where they are nothing but pawns. Halfway through the book, in fact, I realised with a start that Wise is channelling the same unsettling sensation that I’ve felt while reading Robert Holdstock‘s books. Peter, here at least, is surely a kind of mythago – not a boy, but something far more primitive and ancient. It gave me a delicious shiver, and at some points I wished that Wise had pushed even further along that line of thought.
This is also a firmly feminist book. I’d like to think that, even as a child, I thought it unfair that Wendy had to stay behind to cook and clean while all the boys were off having adventures (like poor old Anne in The Famous Five), but I don’t know whether I had the self-awareness to be annoyed – perhaps I assumed that, if I ever ended up in Neverland, I’d become an honorary Lost Boy and romp around with the rest of them. But Wise is acutely interested in the way that women are, even at a young age, expected to become mother-figures, expected to fulfil a certain place in society, and pilloried when they dare to behave in a way that breaches those expectations. Wendy, of course, is institutionalised when her narrative of the world doesn’t fit with what her more conventional brothers want her to say. She is forced to become a wife, although she and her husband find unexpected wellsprings of support in one another. Even in Neverland, Jane – a self-proclaimed scientist – finds herself trapped or lured back whenever she tries to break Peter’s spell and act independently. Women are expected to be caring mother-figures for men, but at the same time they are expected to be meek, submissive to the will of those very same men, preferably infantilised so that they are little better than children.
But there are compensations: Wise doesn’t care for society’s imposition of roles on women, but she is alive to the magic of motherhood. She writes beautifully about the strong, fierce relationship between mothers and daughters, and the way that a woman can dare unimaginable things when she is called upon to protect those she loves. Here, at last, the women learn to save themselves.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review