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Wendy, Darling by A.C. Wise

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When I was really young, my mum used to always talk me and my brother and sister the same story over and over – though bits did change over time – a tale of the little boy who never grew up. She told us about his friends, Tinkerbell and Tiger Lily, and about all his adventures battling against the evil Captain Hook.

For years she regaled us with these bedtime stories, talking about her brother, Peter Pan.

And for years I believe her. After all, who doesn’t want to believe in fairy tales?

My latest read, Wendy, Darling, the debut novel from A.C. Wise twists every single Peter Pan story on its head.

Find the second star from the right, and fly straight on ’til morning, all the way to Neverland, a children’s paradise with no rules, no adults, only endless adventure and enchanted forests – all led by the charismatic boy who will never grow old. 

But Wendy Darling grew up. She has a husband and a young daughter called Jane, a life in London. But one night, after all these years, Peter Pan returns. Wendy finds him outside her daughter’s window, looking to claim a new mother for his Lost Boys. But instead of Wendy, he takes Jane. 

Now a grown woman, a mother, a patient and a survivor, Wendy must follow Peter back to Neverland to rescue her daughter and finally face the darkness at the heart of the island…

When I started to read this book I thought I was going to be getting a bit of a spin on Hook. I have to be honest, I saw the title and the recommendation that this was a book for anyone who had loved Circe – which you all know by now I would recommend until my tongue fell out and after that would continue to leave post-it notes covered in the same recommendations – and just had to pick it up.

Oh boy, was I so very very wrong in my belief that it was going to be a light and gentle tale that perhaps, occasionally, reduced me to tears.

Wendy, Darling paints a very different picture of what happens after happily ever after. It has been done before, several times, in novels such as Lost Boy by Christina Henry. But in each of these books, the focus was always on Peter and his adventures, good or bad. Wendy, Darling is, as the title pretty clearly suggests, all about Wendy, about the woman she becomes and how she gets there.

One thing I noticed when I first considered the book was that it was apparently a feminist re-telling. I noticed a few elements that, considering the era the novel is based in – the early 20th century – are definitely messages of independence and female autonomy. But my take home when I finished the book was that not everything is as it seems.

The book begins with a grown-up Wendy waking up in the middle of the night with the feeling that something in her home is very wrong. She rushes to her young daughter’s room and after a brief conversation with her childhood friend, watches as he dismisses her for being an adult, and then snatches her young daughter, Jane from her bed, before whisking her away to Neverland.

Peter’s return to Wendy’s life forces her to revisit several episodes that are incredibly painful.

Unlike her younger brothers, John and Michael, Wendy found it really difficult to move on from her experiences in Neverland. When she returned to her home, to her family after all her adventures, things quickly changed. Their parents died in the Titanic tragedy and Michael joined the army to fight in World War One. He came back a man swallowed up by his experiences and tormented by those who didn’t survive.

While her brothers have purpose to keep them busy, Wendy is almost left to languish in the memories of her childhood, of the adventures in Neverland, her friendship with Peter, with Tiger Lily. She is consumed by them. These memories are the centre of her life and when John is no longer able to cope with her constant demands that he MUST remember their adventures, he has her admitted to St Bernadette’s, a place where her brother believes she will get the help she really needs.

If you’ve ever done any research into the sort of mental health care and facilities that were around in the early 1900s (or even mid-1900s) then you’ll know that Wendy’s experience is anything other than pleasant. She’s beaten, bullied and tortured by the orderlies, and if she were really as ill as some of the patients then she would never actually get well.

In fact, mental health facilities during the early 1900s, the time in which Wendy, Darling is based, were pretty horrific, with the introduction of experimental therapies that were most often incredibly harmful to the people they were meant to be helping. I actually used to work in the mental health field, though I was already being treated (and I use that term loosely) for mental health issues myself. And as part of that, I was often required to review things like the Mental Health Act and legal methods of detainment for patients in our facility involuntarily. This sort of research often led me down a bit of a rabbit hole, checking out various medical sites, the Science Museum and other places where information about different treatments was available. Did you know, for example, that the first lobotomy wasn’t performed until 1935? I always thought that these treatments were much older, a torturous operation believed to be a cure for various ailments surely was introduced more than 40 years before my birth, right?

Anyway, I am getting off track here. Needless to say, Wendy’s memories of the time she spent in St Bernadette’s are consumed by waterboarding, physical and mental abuse and punishments that her brother is unknowingly paying for. Though her time in the asylum is horrific, something good did come from it, she built strong bonds with a girl called Mary who reminded her, in the beginning, of Tiger Lily. Mary was admitted to St Bernadette’s by her step-father’s second wife after it was decided they didn’t want a Native American girl sullying their life.

Interspersed with Wendy’s past experiences at St Bernadette’s are snippets of her memories of her time in Neverland with Peter and the Lost Boys. These memories, however, are less than pleasant as she sees many of them now as the adult she is, and this gives those memories a much darker slant.

The more of the book that I read, the more dread I felt building in the pit of my stomach as anticipation continued to grow, taking me closer to the core of the plot. It appears that while Wendy was living the adventure and enjoying the freedom of Neverland, Peter shared a secret with her that she can see the edges of, but the truth is lost to her, forever out of her grasp.

The police have been called to search for Jane, but Wendy knows the truth, that no one will be able to find her daughter, except for her.

There were moments while I read this book that I was drawn in by the action, but with every single memory that Wendy pulled out of the recesses of her brain, every single thing she finally allowed herself to recall, I just knew that things were not going to be all sweetness and light. Whatever Peter revealed, whatever he was hiding in Neverland was not going to be the sweetness and light I remembered from the tales my mum told, the tales that the Disney film portrayed. Before I reached the big reveal I very nearly went and dug out my copy of Peter Pan – it was one of the books I covered as part of my degree, but I resisted. I have to judge a book on its own merits.

Part of me started to wonder if we weren’t in some kind of Lost situation when it came to Neverland, especially when it appeared that Wendy was about to commit suicide in an attempt to rescue her daughter, jumping off a window ledge. But, even as an adult, she is able to fly!

It’s when Wendy arrives in Neverland that things start to become even clearer. Nothing is ever as it seems and as I walked along the beach and through the woods with Wendy as she searched the island for Jane and Peter it was apparent that things had changed, a lot. The grotto where the mermaids once frolicked was full of skeletons, the woods so lacking in life that it developed an eerie and somewhat sinister atmosphere.

Wendy’s travels across Neverland combine almost seamlessly with her experiences in the asylum and the events that led to her current situation – that of a woman married with a young child. Her life has never been simple, despite being the only daughter of a relatively well-to-do family.

The events that lead to her marriage, to Ned, are not the kind that a young girl dreams of when considering any romance. When marriage is presented to her as an option it’s not a choice anyone should have to make:

“I thought you would be happy. Even if…Even if you think you don’t want to marry, surely it would be better than being in this place, wouldn’t it?” There’s an earnestness to his expression – isn’t marriage and motherhood what every woman wants?

It’s obvious that John believes he is giving her sister a gift when what he’s doing is asking her to trade one prison for another. Men of his ilk had no idea of the prison that marriage could become.

As with many men who bartered daughters, sisters, or cousins for better business, and improved positions, John has no idea the sort of man he is essentially selling his sister to. Luckily for Wendy, her husband-to-be has secrets of his own, and he is just as much at the mercy of his father – a decidedly unlikeable man – as Wendy is her brother.

Less of the history lesson and my opinion of marriage as a bartering tool where women are treated as chattel during earlier centuries – oh look, a feminist theme, though now the entire wedding market seems to be far more in a woman’s favour.

Wendy moves closer to the centre of the island, and as she does she starts to remember more and these memories are more horrifying and more painful than any of her experiences in the asylum.

All the while I was reading about Wendy, there were three separate storylines that intertwined almost faultlessly. Wendy’s past in Neverland, her experiences in St Bernadette’s, her present in Neverland and finally Jane’s own experiences. 

Unlike her mother, who actually chose to join Peter in Neverland when he first came to her, Jane is his hostage and he is doing his utmost to persuade her to stay, but not by being nice. Through Jane’s eyes, he is vicious, and mean, and he is drugging her. She is starting to lose pieces of herself, including her own name, as she is his mother, the carer, she is the ‘New Wendy’.

Whatever it is that Peter is hiding, or protecting, it’s at the centre of Neverland and he will do anything to stop anyone from finding out, and it’s during the rush to the finish that all the dirty laundry is hung out to dry and not in a good way.

Though it wasn’t a traditional ‘I enjoyed this’ novel, I did find myself anxious to find out what happened. I loved the portrayal of Wendy, her determination, her drive, her need to survive. 

Did it decimate my childhood memories? Well, it made a good attempt. Was it a little darker than I had expected? Yes, but it also looked into subjects I hadn’t thought about in a while, such as mental health care and how far we’ve come in less than 100 years and how far we still have to go. Did it have a different angle to other books along a similar theme? Yes, it looked at everything through the eyes of Wendy, who was always left behind when Peter and the boys went to battle. I have to say that one of the lines in the book really resonated with me:

“But the world already makes too much room for boys like Peter, boys who under normal circumstances grow up to be men like Ned’s father, who start wars and send boys like Michael home broken.”

This is a debut novel written in a way that is absorbing. I picked up the book on Tuesday evening and before I knew it I was 40% of the way in, it was gone midnight and I was absolutely absorbed. I read the rest of it over Wednesday afternoon and there were so many twists and turns that I just couldn’t put it down. This is the sort of book that you need to be in the right frame of mind for. It’s not horror, but it is a story that digs at childhood memories, especially if you grew up on stories of Peter Pan as I did. But I didn’t put it down and find myself left with a horrid taste in my mouth. I would definitely recommend it if you love the sort of book that twists a fairy tale into something else, or looks at it from a different perspective. It’s very well done.

Pros

  • Wonderfully written
  • Absorbing
  • Not in-your-face feminism, but a subtle and powerful message

Cons

  • Really rips those fond childhood interpretations to shreds
3-5 star rating

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