I am, as you all know, a huge fan of Fink’s other work – Welcome To Night Vale, co written with Jeffrey Cranor – so evidently when Alice Isn’t Dead was announced you can be sure I was excited. I’m writing this review from the unique position of someone who has started the podcast, but is not up to date – so I can only comment on it’s similarity to the podcast to a certain extent, but I feel like this is in a way a good thing. After all, I had no idea how it ended. But it began with a woman, a truck, and a mission.
“This is not a story. It’s a road trip.”
Alice Isn’t Dead is the story of Keisha, a woman whose grief over her wife – presumed dead – is changed abruptly when she sees Alice’s face on the news. Seizing the only lead she has – Alice’s references to Bay and Creek shipping in her records – Keisha leaves her life behind and takes up a job driving a Bay and Creek truck across the expanses of America’s roads with no goal except to look for Alice everywhere she goes. There’s a profound sense of isolation in this novel, the miles of empty road ahead and behind Keisha a consistent backdrop to the narrative, but also the isolation of grief. Keisha spends months in Group therapy sessions trying to put into words “the shape of the monster that was devouring her”, pushing away her friends because while they looked at her and listened to her words, they were fundamentally unable to reach her. So by the time she sees something dangerous, she’s already too accustomed to loneliness to confide in anybody but the radio in her truck. Because whatever her reasoning, Alice isn’t dead, she’s gone – and Keisha needs to know why.
“You think fear is new to me? You think fear is the novelty that will change my behaviour? For me, fear is living. And I’ve lived this long, haven’t I?”
One thing I hugely appreciated about this novel was that Keisha openly struggles and acknowledges her struggles with anxiety. As someone who lives with anxiety myself, it was amazing to see a protagonist whose mental health battles can be a hindrance, can reduce her to nothing but the feeling of fear and the knowledge that she must fight against it, and who still manages with such strength to battle the monsters both within her mind and out in the world she lives in. This anxious, fearful energy keeps her alive when she encounters much more than truckers on the roads of America. After all, it’s hard to manipulate a person using fear if they live with it daily. Keisha is afraid, yes, but she is also resourceful, intelligent, strong and loving.
“We are creatures of the road. We feed on distance, on road trips, on emptiness. Bodies by the side of the highway.”
Fink steps up the horror in Alice Isn’t Dead beyond the everyday terror of life in Night Vale. The Thistle Man is a terrifying creation that slots far too easily into the isolated life of delivery drivers and travellers. How many times have you been in a roadside restaurant, a petrol station, and seen someone who looks threatening, or strange? How many times do people look away from something that unnerves them, because if you do not acknowledge something it won’t frighten you? How many murders go unsolved every year, bodies left by roadsides, offenders disappearing into the traffic? The shambling, loose-skinned, not-quite-right Thistle Man is a figure that if I ever saw him in real life I’d probably die of terror on the spot and take the fun out of it for him. He’s a figure from an urban myth, so to see him in a crowded diner, or the parking lot of a big store with families parked up nearby, is chilling. Being on the road for days is isolating – but screaming for help and seeing those who hear you turn away is terrifyingly so. The more Keisha sees, the more she understands why Alice may have wanted to disappear. It would be easier to be dead, than to live in a world where things like the Thistle Man are possible.
“How long has America been going on? It’s a shadowy line, but the conflict gradually formed as the nation did.”
Thistle is an evil that grows alongside the nation it feeds upon. It leaves in its wake a trail of bodies and lives shattered by the monster they cannot put into words for fear it will return to finish the job. Nothing shows this destruction more than the life of Sylvia, a teenager running from the horrors that took away her mother and the innocence of an ignorant youth, and who is a fantastic character. Her role in this story made me genuinely emotional. If you read this, I hope you like sylvia too.
“She wasn’t big, she wasn’t white, she wasn’t male. Her hands shook as a rule, and her voice was soft when she spoke at all.”
This book is unashamedly diverse. This should probably be evident from the offset, given that Keisha has a wife named Alice, and more so if you’re familiar with Fink’s other works. Throughout the novel, Fink challenges stereotypes and calls out inequality consistently. We see Keisha’s role as a truck driver being questioned by men whose idea of who should do her job doesn’t align with the small, black, lesbian woman standing in front of them. There’s a man named Tanya, who holds onto his birth name because it was given to him by his deceased mother and who is to say what is and isn’t a man’s name? We see crooked police, government officials willing to look the other way on multiple murders because it benefits them, we see human hatred literally disfiguring those it overcomes and turning them into monsters of their own making.
And then this motley group of people that these monsters have terrorised begin to see others where once they only saw isolation. They give shape to the monsters that are devouring them, they describe them, they fight them.
Alice Isn’t Dead is a thrilling, horrifying and delightfully weird read. Fink’s writing style is wonderful, intelligent and intense. It is a novel about taking on the things that frighten you, about love and isolation and how sometimes the most important thing about a life is that it is lived fully in a world that makes that difficult. A definite recommendation to horror fans and those who enjoy a side of supernatural monstrosity with their road-trips!
Overall rating: 📖📖📖📖📖 5 books out of 5.
A copy of Alice Isn’t Dead was provided by Eidelweiss+ in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.