The Looking Glass House by Vanessa Tait
‘The expectation of a party, more perfect than the thing itself; the music room was alive with it. All day the bell had been ringing and boys from the vintner’s coming in with boxes of wine and canary and stacking them noisily on the sideboard. All day the housemaid had been on her knees at the fireplace until the orbs of the firedogs reflected the whole room in queasy miniature.’
Oxford, 1862. Mary Prickett takes up the post of governess to the daughters of the Dean of Christ Church. Mary is desperate for change and realises too late that she doesn’t actually like children all that much, particularly the precocious Alice Liddell. When Mary meets Charles Dodgson, the Christ Church mathematics tutor, she hopes that he will be the person to change her life. But Charles has his attention directed elsewhere, on someone much younger…
I was very excited to receive this book in the post from Atlantic. It’s written by Vanessa Tait, great-granddaughter of Alice Liddell, the little girl who inspired Charles Dodgson (alias Lewis Carroll) to write Alice in Wonderland. With its beautiful hardback cover, I was convinced that it was going to be a great read. Unfortunately, those who say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover were proved correct. The cover is the best thing about The Looking Glass House.
What was most frustrating was the potential that Tait wasted with this story. She is clearly a good writer, the story was there for the taking, but she failed to conjure anything of any substance out of it. The protagonist, Mary, is as bland and petty as they come and there’s only so many pages an author can spend focusing on one character pining after another before it becomes really dull.
I couldn’t sympathise with any of the characters. The brief moments when I felt empathy for Mary, a woman who doesn’t conform to the ideals of her time, were quickly scrapped when she became a caricature of the wronged woman looking for revenge.
There were parts of the book that also made me really uncomfortable. Not only did some of the images jar and provoke genuine disgust, but the not-so-subtle suggestions of paedophilia created a constant sense of unease beneath the surface of the story. If this had paid off in some way in the ending that would have been understandable, but it had almost no impact on the outcome of the story. Tait asserts in her author’s note that there is no evidence that Dodgson was a paedophile but she must have been aware of how the relationship between Dodgson and Alice would come across.
There were some moments when Tait’s writing talent shone through, when she created images in the vein of Lewis Carroll’s topsy-turvy Wonderland. But such moments were unfortunately few and far between and weren’t enough to save what was overall a bland and uninteresting read.
It lacked the whimsy and humour that I was expecting, and the undercurrents of threat and the lack of sympathetic characters made for an uncomfortable and unenjoyable read.
Thanks very much to Atlantic for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.