Paula Guran Reviews Wendy, Darling by A.C. Wise

Wendy, Darling, A.C. Wise (Titan 978-1-78909-681-1 $15.95 336pp, tp) June 2021.

At the end of J.M. Barrie’s novel Peter and Wendy (also known as Peter Pan), Wendy, her brothers and the Lost Boys adopted by their parents have all grown up. Wendy is married and has a daughter, Jane, whom she’s filled with tales of their adventures in Neverland. When Peter Pan shows up at the nursery window, Wendy allows Jane to fly off with the boy who never grows up. Jane returns safely, grows up in turn, and has a daughter named Margaret who travels to Neverland as her foremothers did. We are promised the tradition will continue when Margaret, too, will grow up and have a daughter herself.

Most of us remember the story of Peter Pan as an enchanting adventure, but it is grounded – like all great fairy tales – in considerable darkness. A. C. Wise takes this aspect, adds in 21st-century feminism, and weaves a magnificent sequel with her debut novel: Wendy, Darling. It starts in 1931 London, 27 years after the Darling children’s first adventures. As in the original, Peter Pan shows up and discovers Wendy tragically grown up, and takes Jane in her place, to do the “spring clean­ing” in Neverland. But it is not with Wendy’s blessing.

We quickly learn the Darling parents have died on the Titanic. John, buried in responsibility, and Michael, traumatized by his service in The Great War, have forgotten Neverland. But Wendy never forgets, insisting that others must see the truth: “Peter was and is a part of her; Neverland is a part of her.” For Wendy, Neverland was a happy ad­ venture with her brothers. Bad things only came after they returned – the deaths of their parents, the resulting burdens, the war. Convinced the troublesome young woman is mad, John had her committed to St. Bernadette’s, an asylum for the insane – another bad thing. There Wendy had to learn, as Mary White Dog, a young Kanai woman from Canada, tells her: “You can fly, but if you let them see, they’ll only try to tie you down and break your wings.” Wendy yearned for Peter to save her, but realizes, with some help, she has to save herself. We learn, through these chapters set in the past, that Wendy emerged from St. Ber­nadette’s through an arranged marriage to Ned, who has secrets himself. She eventually gains her friend, Mary’s, freedom too. Social mores (and Ned’s overbearing and typical-influential-man-of-the-era father’s racist views) determine that Mary take on the role of “Cook” in order to preserve her place as a friend and member of the family.

With Jane taken, Wendy must truly fly in order to go back to Neverland and save her daughter. Once there, she finds it haunted and the “lagoon… full of skeletons in a place where nothing is sup­posed to die.” Without Peter’s influence, and through mature eyes, Wendy begins to see a new, disconcerting truth even as she begins to recall a horrific secret Peter once showed her. She also finds an ally in Tiger Lily, now “a shell with the ghost of the child” she once was “trapped inside;” cursed by Peter to become the “worst thing he could imagine, someone grown up.”

Jane, meanwhile, is dealing with holding onto her own identity while Peter, aided by the sticky sweet tea he gives her, attempts to force her to become the “Wendy” and “mother” he wants her to be. The current tribe of Lost Boys are no happier.

We learn, or relearn, along with Wendy, that one must find what and who they are, but finding that truth about oneself is never simple. Once found, one must share that truth with those one loves, even if one cannot always be totally truth­ful with the rest of the world.

Eloquently written and full of indelible charac­ters, Wendy, Darling is a darkly beautiful story that proves to be as memorable as – and more meaningful than – its inspiration.

Paula Guran has edited more than 40 science fiction, fantasy, and horror anthologies and more than 50 novels and collections featuring the same. She’s reviewed and written articles for dozens of publications. She lives in Akron OH, near enough to her grandchildren to frequently be indulgent.

This review and more like it in the June 2021 issue of Locus.

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