Published in Issue 24 of Visionary Tongue, Spring 2008.

At the time of going to press, Alice in Sunderland has been shortlisted for the BSFA award for Best Novel, which is odd, not because it doesn’t deserve to win a prize – I’m sure it does – but because, brilliant though it is, this graphic ‘novel’ is essentially a work of non-fiction.

We enter a dreamscape of the Sunderland Empire Theatre alongside the dreamer and sole audience member, who bears some resemblance to Talbot, and watch as the white rabbit on stage unmasks and reveals himself to be a player, who also vaguely resembles Talbot, who goes on to present a filmic narrative in which the Pilgrim – another version of Talbot, wanders Simon Scharma-like through depictions of Sunderland’s history, telling us all about it.

Like a work of fiction, various sub-plots run alongside the main subject – the story of Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels, and his associations with Sunderland – from the story of the shipbuilding industry and the history of Sunderland as a centre of learning, to the story of how George Formby thought up Wigan Pier and the history of comics. Threads are returned to over and over to reveal the startling interconnectedness of things.

Various characters add to the cast, from the ghost of Sid James to some of Talbot’s friends and associates who scripted or co-scripted the speech (Leo Baxendale, Michael Bute, Chaz Brenchley and Colin Wilbourne), and anyone who’s anyone that has the slightest connection at all with Sunderland gets a mention, from Henry Irving to Ned Kelly.

There is fiction too – from the myths of the Lambton Worm to the myths surrounding Carroll’s life and works, stories which have become ‘true’ in the retelling. The narrative is strong, and keeps you turning the pages more than the promise of a secret fake story at the end ever could – and it hardly needs to be said that the art work is simply stunning.

After reading this book, I am left feeling as though my own region is somewhat poor in terms of cultural enrichment in comparison with Sunderland, but that’s really the only negative thing I can say about this sumptuous work.

Random House ISBN: 978-0-224-08076-7

Review by Donna Scott