Alice and the Fly by James Rice

Alice and the Fly by James Rice is a first-person novel narrated by Greg Hall, a teenage boy isolated by his mental health problems. There's some debate over the diagnosis of his condition - Greg himself talks only of a phobia of spiders so severe that it triggers vomiting and seizures - but his medication is anti-psychotic and it seems to be only when he is particularly agitated that most of his spider encounters occur. Greg is friendless at school and emotionally neglected at home by his aspirational middle-class parents and wary sister Sarah. He collects classic movies - Casablanca, Breakfast At Tiffany's and Brief Encounter are his favourites. As the novel begins, Greg is on a bus - but he isn't actually going anywhere. He catches the bus every day for the sole purpose of watching his beloved Alice.

The story of Greg and Alice is told primarily through a journal Greg has been encouraged to keep by his kind but naive English teacher, interspersed with some brief transcripts of police interviews which hint that Greg's all-consuming obsession with Alice has ended in an unspecified but serious incident.

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Alice and the Fly has inevitably been compared to Nathan Filer's The Shock of the Fall and Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and it is fair to say that they are all novels of a similar type, but there's plenty in Alice and the Fly that feels fresh and original. Although the setting is contemporary and recognisable, there's a slightly dystopian feel to Greg's world. The social and physical divide between the middle-class area where Greg lives and the Pitt, the council estate where Alice lives, is extreme; Skipdale High, the school that serves both catchments, is a frightening and almost lawless place as seen through Greg's eyes, with a misogynistic and sexualised culture in which girls choreograph suggestive routines to songs with explicit lyrics for the school dance evening and get breast implants in their teens. Greg's Saturday job cleaning in a butcher's shop is described in grotesque detail, all trays of congealing fat and skin-peeling industrial bleach, and a teenage house party becomes a technicolour nightmare of vindictive destruction. Even Greg's affluent middle-class home has a sense of heightened, off-kilter reality about it: an expensive sofa assumes an almost sinister significance and the family silently eat the same meal night after night as Greg's mother becomes obsessed with perfecting it for a dinner party.

Is Greg a victim of a wider familial and societal dysfunction, or are we simply seeing a normal world filtered by his own disordered thinking? Certainly Greg is not a reliable narrator. His naivety is often endearing and it's impossible not to feel sympathetic towards him as he attempts to navigate his way through school and his home life drawing as little attention to himself as possible, perpetually fearful of 'Them', as he calls the spiders he so fears, and of any kind of social interaction. However, an increasingly unsettling note starts to creep into his narrative as his grip on reality begins to slip and veiled references to his past raise uncomfortable questions.

There is a lot of darkness in this book, and you have to look pretty hard to find characters beyond Greg that you can really like - even the well-meaning ones are often infuriatingly or even dangerously misguided - but equally there are some weakly hopeful moments and, perhaps somewhat against the odds, there is also plenty of astute, observant humour (if your best subject at school was English, you'll recognise the frequency with which it's assumed that 'English teacher' is your sole career option).

I found Alice and the Fly an involving read, skilfully structured and vivid. In Greg, James Rice has created a teenage protagonist with a strong, highly individual voice, and the book's depiction of mental illness is fascinating and memorable. This is an exceptional debut.