WENDY, DARLING by A C Wise (BOOK REVIEW
Content warnings: A huge amount of medical abuse and gaslighting; depictions of abusive asylums; mentions of suicide; mentions of sexual assault.
I don’t tend to consider myself a huge Peter Pan fan – I don’t dislike it as a story at all, but there are people who just adore it and I’m more on the ‘general liking’ side! That being said, I seem to have read more than my fair share of reinterpretations of it, and I was tempted into a review copy of Wendy, Darling by the promise of a book that focused on Wendy as a mother, trying to prevent her daughter being swept up into the same cycle she experienced. And wow, did this book achieve that wonderfully. This is a skilful blend of fantasy and historical fiction that manages to be two things at once: a good reworking of the source material, and a great commentary on historical attitudes to mental illness, women, and more.
The Wendy of this book is a phenomenally interesting character: a woman who’s been crushed and tortured into ‘normality’, who’s been forced to renounce the truth of Neverland in order to have a proper life. There are two timelines going on, one in 1931 with the main plot of Wendy rescuing her daughter from Neverland, and one in 1917, in which we see a younger Wendy, back from Neverland, being committed to a horrifying asylum in the hopes that she’ll be cured of her ‘delusions’ about her adventures. There are also chapters from daughter Jane’s perspective, which offer an interesting counterpoint to Wendy’s thoughts, and allow for a dawning sense of horror in the reader as she works out what we already know.
This is not a cheerful book, I’ll say that now. Compelling, yes, and not exactly bleak – there’s an element of strength and hope that runs through it – but not cheerful at all. It really isn’t my normal kind of read, but I just loved it. It’s so very human, and I was rooting hard for Wendy to come through and unpick all of her abuse. The author has a keen eye for observation of relationships, and it would take me pages to elaborate on all the dexterity of the character work, but this is what’s stuck with me. I’m writing this review a couple of months after I read the book, and I can’t shake some of the beautiful, almost painful, character interactions: for example, the strained relationship Wendy has with her brothers, who experienced the same adventures but reacted in very different ways once they were back, or the unexpected quiet support from her husband Ned, who could so easily have been a classic uncaring husband figure.
I really enjoyed the darker depiction of Peter; his whimsy is easy to twist into capriciousness, and his carefree attitude into cruelty. It’s not necessarily the first ‘Peter as villain’ retelling I’ve read, but it’s definitely the one that’s seemed most chilling to me – he feels like an old god or a fae being, someone who is just not human enough in their worldview to understand how terrifying they are. The Lost Boys, like Wendy, are subject to his every whim, and I found the mixture of his childlike play and his uncaring need for control to be really very creepy. There are definitely shades of horror here – but for me, the most impressive stuff wasn’t from the blurb’s ‘darkness at the heart of the island’ (which was actually a little bit of a letdown for me), but from Peter’s own inexplicable nature. This is a book about cruelty and kindness and the way in which the difference between the two is measured, and this version of Peter is perfect for illustrating that. Even as someone who, as I say, doesn’t have a huge childhood association with Neverland, seeing the damage he’s done, the bones of the mermaids, the dying land, made my skin crawl.
What I wasn’t expecting to enjoy so much was the real world aspects of the book – ‘enjoy’ is probably the wrong word, actually, but these were just as compelling and harrowing as the dark magic of Neverland. I’ve mentioned how good the character work is, but that strong foundation allows so many different issues to be explored: Wendy’s sexuality; her intense, life-saving friendship with Mary, a girl she meets in the asylum; the depiction of Native American peoples in the original story; the way it feels to have your entire life controlled and affected by the men around you; the inhumanity of mental illness ‘treatment’; the fierce and painful emotions of being a mother. Wendy feels so real – and in a book that’s about shaping reality, and who gets to do it, that’s powerful.
I really wasn’t expecting so much depth from this book, and I’m so glad I was wrong. It’s not an easy read in terms of subject matter, but I flew through it out of sheer fascination, and it’s one that’s going to be hanging out in my brain for a long time.