SFF Librarian Reviews
As a voracious reader, and as someone for whom science fiction and fantasy are part of my daily job as a science fiction librarian, I come across a lot of wonderful work in these genres. I love bringing to the attention of interested readers books and authors that bring me joy, some of which may have slipped below people’s radar, and I do so most months in The SFF Librarian Reviews series for ARB.
Let’s explore strange new worlds together!
Wendy, Darling By A.C. Wise. Titan Books, June 1, 2021.
It seems to be a month for re-evaluation here: first animals, now literary classics. It’s always a transformative experience to look at a beloved book through new and more mature eyes, for me, anyway. When I was growing up, one of my favorite stories was J.M. Barrie’s 1911 novel Peter Pan (never the Disney film, thank you)—it was funny, exciting, profound at times, and witty (especially the dialogue between Hook and his pirates). But even young me could sense that there was something else going on behind the colorful adventure—a sense of unease at Peter’s self-centeredness and his treatment of everyone around him as players in his games. I’m grateful to A.C. Wise for her revisionist sequel Wendy, Darling, that bears out this suspicion of mine and plays into it in intensely menacing, dangerous ways.
Some may remember that Peter Pan ended with Wendy, John, and Michael having grown up. Wendy is watching over her daughter Jane, when the ageless and forever-young Peter returns to her window; disappointed that Wendy has become an adult, Peter invites Jane to Neverland, and the two fly off into the night. It’s a nice ending, really, implying that the adventures on Neverland continue without end through the generations (Barrie notes that one day Jane will grow up and her daughter, in turn, will fly to Neverland.) But Wise chooses to open her novel with the scene presented as an abrupt kidnapping of Jane by Peter in front of Wendy’s horrified eyes, cutting immediately afterwards to a flashback that reveals Wendy, fourteen years earlier, had been committed to an asylum by her brother John. Her inability to forget Peter and Neverland and her memories of their adventures are considered hysteria by John, and she is imprisoned for several years. (Wendy’s time in the asylum, marked by abuse and cruelty, is among the most harrowing events of the novel, not least because it reflects what really happened to residents of Edwardian-era institutions.)
Like Wendy herself, Wise’s readers have grown up since Peter Pan; like Wendy, we know the darkness of life and we can well imagine that nightmares nestle at the hearts of dreams. The Neverland to which Peter brings Jane is not Barrie’s fairyland, but the monstrous outgrowth of Peter’s pure need, his actions without thought, his transformation of the world into his own private playground without concern for the lives around him. Like so many real-life grownup men, child Peter treats other people as objects, as shadows to his sun. This sociopathy has disastrous consequences for Neverland’s inhabitants—if Peter forgets them, they decay or die away. Those he DOES remember—his ever-present Lost Boys—are essentially his psychological slaves and enforcers. It is a regime of terror disguised as a young boy’s never-ending game, one which both Jane and the pursuing Wendy set out to stop and escape.
Wise brings a strong sense of contemporary gender relations to Wendy, noting that, for Wendy, Peter’s greatest crime is gaslighting her and causing her to question her own truth. At a key moment, Wendy recalls being taken as a girl by Peter to the heart of Neverland to understand the darkness residing there; he betrays her by snatching the memory away.
Wendy touches her pockets. She touches the hilt of Hook’s sword. Her hands shake. Ever since she returned from Neverland, people have been calling her a liar, telling her she doesn’t know her own mind. The only consolation she had was her own steadfast knowledge of the truth—Neverland, solid and real all the way through. But Peter twisted that, he took it away from her. He made her forget.
“Peter showed me. He was proud. He…It was terrible. But he ripped it out of my mind. Like he tore a piece of me away, so I couldn’t know to be afraid of him, and I couldn’t remember for so long.”
Wendy takes a shuddering breath. She feels small again. Hurt. Betrayed. Peter turned her own mind against her. He made her memories into a lie.
When you grow up, you must change. Barrie ended his book by noting that Peter will continue to rule Neverland and bring new generations of children there, “and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.” But being heartless means one thing for a child, another for an adult. The former is a natural enough part of life, but the latter can lead to heartbreak, disappointment, tragedy, and the objectification of others. That’s a dark form of magic indeed, and too many men today wield it against others. Too many men are Peter Pans and too many women are young Wendys. Wise expertly and powerfully casts a beloved children’s story in a new light that brings this situation into a fantasy setting, denying it none of its power but at the same time revising it to champion the values of truth and autonomy.
Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M university, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world.
This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020. No review copies were arranged by ARB.