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by Karen Wallace

A disclaimer on the back of Karen Wallace’s latest novel, Wendy, states: “This book is not authorised by or affiliated with Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity, the owner of the copyright in J M Barrie’s Peter Pan.” One can understand how they might want to protect the shiny patina of the Peter Pan brand name from Wallace’s novel, in which the Darling children are tyrannized by an abusive nanny, Mr. Darling is an adulterer, and the parents harbour a tragic and shameful family secret.

In the British trade magazine The Bookseller, Wallace, a prolific Canadian-born writer living in England, said that Wendy is “really the story of an Edwardian childhood, with a twist. I wanted to imagine a situation in which a young girl would come to a point where she would either dream, fantasize or hallucinate a young boy coming through the window who will be forever young.”

Wallace imagines Wendy Darling as iconoclastic and wise beyond her years. “The girl was only nine but she often seemed more grown up than her age. She spent half her time with her head in a book and the other half grubbing about in the garden with her magnifying glass.”

As the story opens, Wendy and her younger brother John sneak out after bedtime to watch their parents’ dinner guests arrive, and count the staggering number of dishes carried in to them. Hidden behind the banisters, they witness a Freudian primal scene of sorts – their father in a passionate embrace, not with their mother, but with the avaricious Lady Cunningham. “Her black evening dress was cut low and edged with red satin roses. The swell of her bosom was clear in the light from the chandelier. Wendy watched Lady Cunningham’s lips part and her dark eyes glitter over her hooked nose. Then she saw her father lean forward and kiss her on the mouth, as if he wanted to suck the life out of her body.”

The vampiric sexual energy of the scene leaves Wendy devastated and her younger brother frankly confused. “Maybe Lady Cunningham had a splinter in her mouth,” John tells Wendy. “Maybe Father was trying to get the splinter out.” Wendy, often forced into the role of protector, does not disabuse John. Indeed, the clear-sighted girl has learned early on to let people live with their lies. “It was easier that way.”

Her father’s infidelity is not the only thing threatening the Darling family. Nanny Holborn, the children’s governess, is the antithesis of Mary Poppins: bitter, cruel, and physically abusive. Mrs. Darling, kind but oblivious, realizes too late that their lavish lifestyle, and her husband’s ostentation, have plunged their family into penury when the stock market collapses. Wendy quietly observes, and tries to make sense of all this, often with more success than the adults around her. She finds solace in both the kitchen and the cook, Mrs. Jenkins, and her dog, Nana.

Though the story is largely seen through Wendy’s eyes, Wallace frequently shifts points of view so virtually every character has, at least momentarily, a voice: Wendy’s mother and father, the servants, the relations. In this way, Wallace wisely builds our sympathy for (or at least our understanding of) characters we might otherwise have considered one-
dimensional scoundrels, like Mr. Darling.

In its depiction of a privileged, dysfunctional family, as viewed through the penetrating (and often merciless) eyes of
children, Wendy recalls Ian McEwan’s masterful Atonement. Wallace wonderfully conveys the two solitudes within a family: adults and children. While this separation is true of any family, it was especially true of affluent Victorian and Edwardian ones, in which children were all but segregated from their parents. Wallace debunks the cosmetic coziness of children’s classics like Mary Poppins and Peter Pan, and opens the world wider for contemporary readers: the class system in all its boorishness and injustice, the suffragette movement, the arrival of the motor car. Emergent sexuality – and young Wendy’s fear of it – loom large here, too. Wendy is nauseated when a friend mimes her dolls having sexual intercourse. After witnessing Mr. Darling’s sexual appetites, Wendy tries to avoid him. “She shifted sideways to get away from the smell of her father’s tobacco and hair oil.”

If the difference (and similarity) between children and adults was the subtext of Barrie’s Peter Pan, so, too, is it here. Wallace’s story invites the reader to seek out parallels between the two works. Where is Captain Hook, for instance? Has he been transmuted into Nanny Holborn, or Mr. Darling himself, or does he also lurk in the hooked nose of Lady Cunningham?

And where is Peter Pan? There is indeed a journey to Neverland. After the children’s nanny is sacked (ironically, due to financial thrift, rather than her appalling cruelty), the children are sent to Rosegrove, the beloved country estate of their uncle. Here they play with their childhood friends, among them an older boy called Thomas who, because of some mental deficiency “will never grow up.” A symbolic Peter Pan, he is a talented painter who favours flight as his subject matter, and has always been dear to Wendy’s heart.

In Barrie’s novel, it is in Neverland that Wendy is thrust into the responsible role of motherly protector; ironically, in Wallace’s novel, it is in the Neverland idyll of Rosegrove where she is finally permitted to be a child, and slough off all the necessary adult secrecy and deceit of her family life in London. In Rosegrove she can symbolically fly (on a swing), indulge in childish acts of fancy, and spend time with her own Peter Pan.

Wallace even gives her main character a “Wendy house,” a fort built by her brothers and friends, so she can go into hiding and remain in Rosegrove without ever having to return to London. Moreover, Wendy even spends some time here convalescing when she is psychically injured by her mother: Wendy sees her embracing Thomas, and mistakenly assumes it is sexual, rather than maternal. Running from the scene, she falls and gives herself a concussion.

This is a compelling book. The storytelling, with its spare writing and well-observed details, sparkles with the clarity of a child’s perception. By book’s end, everything may work out a bit too neatly, but Wendy is wiser for her wounds. She finally understands why she sometimes feels confused and has trouble telling the real from the make-believe: “It came from listening to grown-ups too much.”