Reviewed by Katya Rara
ALICE ISN’T DEAD
By Joseph Fink
336 pages. Harper Perennial.
When Alice disappears, her wife Keisha does all she can to keep herself together: She holds a funeral, goes to therapy, and shuts out the rest of the world. But six months after the funeral, Keisha spots, in the background of a news report on a brutal murder: her wife, Alice, looking right into the camera. Thousands of miles away, yet unmistakably alive.
Keisha’s investigation leads her to the company where Alice once worked, Bay and Creek Shipping, and soon she takes on a job as a long-haul driver, transporting goods from one state to another. But she has no new leads until she witnesses a grisly murder in a diner by something that just. Isn’t. Human. Something that she names the Thistle Man.
As Keisha tries to run from the creatures tailing her, she meets a teen runaway who’s seen the same things she has, a sinister police officer who stalks her from county to county, and a host of other characters who know that the highways of America are more dangerous than the public believes. Soon Keisha realizes that she’s stumbled upon something far bigger than herself and her missing wife—something she is far from equipped to handle.
An unlikely heroine with an even more unlikely traveling companion
Meet the protagonist of Alice Isn’t Dead: Keisha Taylor. Shy, bookish, and introverted, she’s not someone you’d expect in the role of Hero Searching For Their Missing Wife. And it’s not just that she’s a queer black woman in a job populated by white men; rather, it’s that Keisha suffers from chronic anxiety.
Author Joseph Fink informs the readers about Keisha’s condition from the very first page. In fact, in his letter to the reader*, he talks about how Keisha suffers from the same kind of anxiety that he lives with every day. But he didn’t give her anxiety for no reason; Keisha’s experience of anxiety informs her as a person, adding a layer of realism to a surreal story. And her relationship with her illness is just as powerful as hers with nearly every other person, because she doesn’t just battle anxiety; she also fights alongside it.
A battlefield full of women
The coexistence of anxiety and bravery can be seen not only in Keisha’s life, but also in the lives of the people around her. And until I read a recent interview with Fink, I didn’t realize that almost every character in the book is a woman, save for the Thistle Man.
“My philosophy with ‘Alice’ is, every character is a woman unless there is a specific reason they are not,” Fink says. “Because it just seemed, why not? It’s entirely possible to tell this story that way, so why not do it.”
Discovering that made me further appreciate the wide variety of people Fink wrote into his unsettling world: Brave. Fearful. Grieving. Determined. Everything at once. The characters made no excuses, no comparisons, and no apologies—they simply were. And I loved it.
A deeply moving emotional world
Fink has a knack for writing about the uncanny; the atmosphere of his hit podcasts Welcome To Night Vale and Alice Isn’t Dead are a testament to his skill. But print is a different medium, and here, Fink’s writing can seem distant, his pacing slow. There also is an awkwardness in his action sequences (which, to be fair, existed in the podcast as well!).
But when readers look past the eeriness, they’ll find that Alice Isn’t Dead is at its most powerful when it turns its gaze inward. Fink writes eloquently and evocatively about grief, loss, forgiveness, and all the ways they are intertwined. And the parts I still can’t forget weren’t the nerve-wracking encounters in parking lots, but the chapters about Keisha and Alice’s relationship—their torment and secrets and absolute, certain love. Those are the parts I underlined, marked with colorful page tabs, and read over and over.
Who would have thought that I’d fall in love with the way Joseph Fink writes about love?
A different experience
Alice Isn’t Dead is based on Fink’s podcast of the same name, and I’ll be honest: It took me two reads to divorce the novel from its original format. The podcast’s unnerving strangeness and timelessness, coupled with impeccable sound design, a vivid script, and flawless voice acting by Jasika Nicole, made for one incredible experience—so I wondered how Fink would translate the best parts of Alice into this new medium.
Fink took another tack, trading Nicole’s intimate first-person narration—with all its nuances, like gasps of breath, the crackle of the CB radio, the sharp inhale before static takes over—for a third-person narrative that allows the reader into minds and lives beyond Keisha’s. For fans of the podcast, it’s not a bad experience, just a different one. First-time readers (and non-listeners) won’t know what they’re missing.
“This isn’t a story. It’s a road trip.”
Alice Isn’t Dead is many things: a mystery that morphs into a spine-tingling conspiracy, a thriller with just a touch of horror, and a story about the journey, and impact, of one individual. But more than that, it’s a love letter to the Great American Road Trip. A call to arms. And at its core, a story about two women, their love, and the world they want to fight for.
While readers may be reeled into Alice Isn’t Dead by the horror elements Fink is known for—alternately falling in love with, and fearing, the cluttered desolateness of town after town, highway after highway—they will stay for one thing: the love. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll fall in love with the medium that started it all as well.
Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink is available at Fully Booked branches and Fully Booked Online.
* Included in the ARC of Alice Isn’t Dead is a letter from Joseph Fink, in which he talks about his experiences with anxiety. Unfortunately, the letter isn’t included in the final version of the novel, but the curious can find it on the podcast’s website as a bonus episode titled “Dear Reader.” Listen to it over here.
Katya has had a torrid romance with fiction for over two decades, and sneaks out in the middle of the day for clandestine rendezvous in cafés. She works in advertising and has four poodles. You can find her on Instagram @katerinarara.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]