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by A.M. Homes
Scribner, 1996
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jun 23rd 2003

The End Of Alice

The End of Alice puts the reader into the mind of a rapist and killer of children.  It is in many ways a disturbing experience, even for those who have read the many novels and seen the many movies about serial killers and psychopaths.  Part of the disturbance comes from making him more understandable and even sympathetic.  The killer is not alien and mysterious, but rather self-aware and interesting.  The narrator's descriptions of his actions show how he finds children sexually attractive, and the power of Homes' writing forces the reader to identify with this monster, and thus to recognize the seeds of monstrosity in oneself.  Another disturbing quality of this novel stems from the difficulty in knowing what to believe in the narrator's words.  We know he is in prison and he has been there for twenty-three years.  He is forced into sex by on of the other prisoners, and they have a long-term relationship, one might say.  That much is plausible.  He is receiving letters from a young woman who lives in a street in which he committed one of his murders.  He is due to appear before a board to consider his possible probation.  We can also tell that some of his narrative must be fantasy.  In the final crescendo of the book, he describes his relationship with the girl Alice, and according to him, she seduced him, and made him have sex with her.  She almost asks him to kill her.  This cannot be the truth, we can be sure.  It is too implausible and it conflicts with other information he provides.  But what should we believe when the letters from the young woman describe her having sex with the twelve-year-old boy she has been spying on?  Is it feasible that he really gets revenge on the fellow-prisoner who has been forcing sex him on him for all those years?  Is there any truth in his belief that Alice was seductive and manipulative?  In the end, this is just a novel and there is no final answer to these questions.  Yet in reading through these pages and having to confront such questions, we have to confront the nature of this man, a paradigm of evil in modern western culture.  The experience may be too unpleasant and discomforting for many readers, but it is a tribute to Homes' writing that even though the book is often crude and occasionally disgustingly pornographic, it is also compelling reading.  There's no moral ambiguity here either.  The killer is clearly a pathetic and wretched man.  His own actions may be tied to his unhappy childhood, his sexual abuse at the hands of his mother, the abuse from his grandmother, or an inherited mental instability, but none of these factors exonerates him for his own actions.  The reader is never asked to feel sorry for the man.  Nevertheless, merely understanding him is hard enough. 

© 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.