Juno Dawson writes visceral issue-driven thrillers about high society. Prior to this, I have read Clean, the story of the daughter of an oligarch, who has had to enter rehab. It charts her battle with drugs and depression. Dawson’s latest novel is another high society thriller, part of her “London Trilogy,” the middle book of which, Meat Market, I haven’t read but I really need to put that right. The best thing about Wonderland (for me at least) is that it’s an homage/reworking of the Lewis Carroll’s classic with plenty of Easter eggs for Alice fans.
Juno Dawson books are terrifying. Well, they are if you’re a parent. It must be said this book really isn’t aimed at us, yet both my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a very clever reworking of Alice in Wonderland that examines the pressures of teenage life, the various ways in which depression and mental health issues may manifest themselves in young adults, and the trials of tribulations of being a trans* teen in modern Britain. There’s also a lot of drugs, a fair amount of sex, and some good-old-fashioned attempted murder.
Alice Dodgson (Easter egg No. 1!) lives in a world of stifling privilege and high-end luxury. Yet she is a misfit in her school of millionaires’ daughters. Firstly, Alice’s mum is an author; she’s rich from the sales of her books. New money does not fit in well at St Agnes’ school. Second, Alice is trans; though this is not common knowledge.
As the novel opens, Alice is in trouble again. Bright but easily bored, this is a common occurrence. Alice isn’t too bothered about being in hot water. What is really eating her, is that her friend Bunny has gone missing. Nobody else is concerned about this but Bunny said she was in danger. Though their friendship is based on little more than a chance encounter, Alice wants to find out where Bunny has gone. She needs to know that she’s safe.
This leads Alice to an underground party for wealthy socialites. A party that she would usually be excluded from. The “Wonderland” parties are only available to the very top tier of London society. Alice tricks her way in and so, she enters the rabbit hole.
First up, if you’re an Alice fan then you absolutely should read this book. There are many clever references to the original book, that add a whole extra level of joy to reading Wonderland. The central story of society rivalry is not a new one, but in Dawson’s hands, it’s fresh and invigorating. The interplay between spoiled teenagers is breathtaking. They’re very exaggerated, but at the same time easy to relate to.
The party set pieces are impressive. They convey a mad carnival atmosphere; a hedonistic freedom only the young can enjoy. Wonderland is an evocative story of hedonism and a lack of accountability. Many of the characters in the book are loathsome in isolation, but Dawson shows us what’s beneath the facade. Wealth can’t protect from the insecurities of teenage life; in many cases, it makes them worse. In Alice’s world, there are few places to hide.
The characters in the story are not particularly representative of the book’s readers; after all they come from the top 1%. They do however reflect the desires, concerns, and confusion of teenage life. The prospect of having the entire world open to you, but having little or no clue where you want to go in it. A blank piece of paper can be a terrifying prospect. Parents’ dreams and aspirations are impressed upon children, no matter what their social background. What happens when a child doesn’t want to fulfill them? The flip-side is also represented. Parents who care little for their child’s well-being are dangerous, no matter their social status.
Dawson provides a clear voice for teenagers who are confused by their place in the world. The current media representation of trans children and trans rights is bewildering; immeasurably more so, I imagine, if you’re a young person questioning your very identity. Dawson’s book offers no individual answers but it does offer assurance that readers are not alone on their journey; that it’s OK to ask questions, and that above all, it is perfectly normal to want to be comfortable in your own skin.
I can’t personally relate to many issues in the book, which are both subtle and complex, but Juno Dawson can. This is evident in her stories. As well as doing all that, Dawson writes an excellent yarn. There are some genuinely shocking moments in the book, and I raced to the finish, desperate to see if the villain would get their comeuppance and indeed, for much of the book, find out if the villain was actually who I thought it was.
Wonderland is everything a good young adult novel should be. It actualizes the fears and hopes of its target audience, whilst scaring the be-jesus out of their parents. It informs, yes, but, above all, it entertains. Doubly so if you’re a sucker for Lewis Carroll mythology.
*Please note this is the specific word used in the book, and is part of the character’s gender identity.
If you enjoyed this review do check out my other Word Wednesday posts, here.
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