Fiction, Reviews

Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink

The novel displayed on top of several maps of the United States, with streams of sunshine apparent, giving it a thriller-y feel. The cover of the novel displays the book title and the author's name, including a gold sticker that says "Signed First Edition." The cover is mostly orange, with large yellow circle to simulate the sun, and a black ground that's meant to be the road. You can see the silhouette of a transport truck, and its reflection on the ground, which looks like a skull.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

 I don’t need your protection. I never did. I’m not helpless. I’m not weak. I have anxiety sometimes, and so you thought you needed to make decisions for me? Well, fuck you. That’s what I think of your excuses. Fuck. You. Never tell me about what you thought was right ever again.

*There may be spoilers in the content warning section above the summary. Tread lightly!*

Published: October 2018
Genre: Science Fiction, Horror, Thriller
Representation: POC (Black characters); LGBTQIA2S+ (wlw/lesbian, trans character); Neurodiversity (mental health: anxiety, trauma).
Content Warning: long term dishonesty by a partner; grief; severe anxiety; depression; murder; attempted murder; death (of a family member, along highways, watching someone die, feeling responsible for a death, fear of death); body horror; humanoid monsters; cannibalism; aggressive racism; xenophobia; anti-semitism; KKK; police enabling violence; threat to one’s life; being stalked; feeling trapped; running for your life; being attacked; car crash; isolation; plague-like illness from being poisoned; dismemberment; feeling hunted; being chased by a monster; fighting for your life; stigma against anxiety disorders/assumptions made about folks with anxiety disorders; being in a war zone and watching allies be killed.

Summary

From the New York Times bestselling co-author of It Devours! and Welcome to Night Vale comes a fast-paced thriller about a truck driver searching across America for the wife she had long assumed to be dead.

“This is not a story. It’s a road trip.”

Keisha Lewis lived a quiet life with her wife, Alice, until the day that Alice disappeared. After months of searching, presuming she was dead, Keisha held a funeral, mourned, and gradually tried to get on with her life. But that was before Keisha started to see her wife, again and again, in the background of news reports from all over America. Alice isn’t dead, and she is showing up at every major tragedy and accident in the country.

Following a line of clues, Keisha takes a job as a long-haul truck driver and begins searching for Alice. She eventually stumbles on an otherworldly conflict being waged in the quiet corners of our nation’s highway system—uncovering a conspiracy that goes way beyond one missing woman.

— summary from Goodreads

Review

The best way to describe this queer sci-fi/horror, cross-country-road-trip novel is: it’s an experience. This was another one of our “Podcasts Made Me Do It” reads (see our review for These Witches Don’t Burn here), and it won’t be our last – I mean, who would we be if we didn’t review the Welcome to Night Vale books at some point? This review was something we wanted to do as soon as possible, as Abarna recently finished it and it’s a book that is close to her heart. More on that in a bit.

Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink is a standalone novel based on the horror-thriller podcast of the same name. The two stories stand well on their own, and you do not need to listen to the podcast in order to enjoy the novel. It’s a sweeping adventure full of intimate truths, which Fink declares is one of the most personal stories he has ever written. This novel follows a determined protagonist who struggles with severe baseline anxiety as she searches for her missing wife and does her best to stay alive despite the eldritch monstrosities hunting her, all the while attempting to uncover a larger American conspiracy and combating an underlying evil that lurks along highways and murders all who dare to cross its path. There is just so much to unpack here. We really don’t even know where to start.

The story forces you, as the reader, to face a seemingly insurmountable antagonist along with Keisha, our protagonist – which, if you’re anything like us, will fill you with a sort of helpless dread, especially as we continue to meet characters who have experienced and witnessed the casualties of these heinous crimes. The antagonist is one fuelled solely by hate and bigotry, further exacerbated by a plot twist later in the book (don’t worry, no spoilers from us!) and a realization that they are funded and protected by the US state. How can a few mere humans fight back against a force like that? What’s truly inspiring is that, despite her grief and the terrible trauma she’s experienced, on top of her sometimes crippling anxiety disorder, Keisha does everything she can to work towards defeating the big bad. She works with allies and mobilizes a larger group of people who have seen the horrors hidden on abandoned highways and back alleys, and despite the overwhelming hopelessness of it all, Keisha does what she can to fight back against them. It’s a startling yet incredible resolve to bear witness to as a reader, and despite the underlying uncertainty of whether or not they’d succeed, you can’t help but root for our protagonist and her ragtag group of allies. The message, in that sense, is clear: 

Sometimes, we get to win.

On top of all that, what makes this novel strikingly impactful and deeply emotional is Keisha’s struggle with anxiety. This is where Abarna’s deep love for the novel comes in: because the brand of anxiety that Keisha (as well as Joseph Fink himself) suffers from is very very similar to hers. It’s a rarity to find yourself represented in this way, because mental health inevitably falls on a spectrum, but Abarna has struggled with a severe anxiety disorder for the vast majority of her life, quite literally dealing with anxiety at a baseline on a daily basis. Watching a protagonist do the same and – more importantly – fight, thrive, and keep her resolve, even with her anxiety gnawing at her, was an incredible thing to witness. It was a validation of suffering with a disorder that is typically either misunderstood and minimized, or used as grounds to undermine the person with anxiety. While Keisha actively struggled with anxiety throughout her search for her wife and her fight against literal monsters, she didn’t let other people make assumptions about her solely based on her experience of anxiety and fear. Joseph Fink says it best himself, in the Author’s Note that can only be found at the end of the audiobook, or on the podcast feed, as a bonus episode titled “Dear Reader”:

Keisha, the main character of this book, has anxiety. This is a fact of her life and her identity. […] Through the course of this book, Keisha faces genuine danger and terrifying creatures, while also struggling with baseline anxiety. Just because fear is often irrational, doesn’t mean that the world isn’t a scary place. Anxiety can’t be fixed, but it can be lived with. It was important to me that Keisha not be corrected, that her character arc not be the story of her overcoming anxiety and coming out the other end serene and well-adjusted. That’s not how brains work. She finishes the story as anxious as when she started, but with the knowledge that she can live with that anxiety. That it is as natural to her as heart and lungs, even if it sometimes makes the former pound and the latter gasp. Anxiety is her, and my, oldest enemy. And it is her, and my, oldest friend. And it is her. And it is me. There is no separating our anxiety from who we are. As Keisha says in the face of one of her many dangerous adversaries: “I’m not afraid of feeling afraid.”

It’s an incredible acknowledgement of how suffering from anxiety doesn’t make you weak and doesn’t mean you’re unable to face adversity. It’s a profound validation of feeling completely debilitated by anxiety but still doing what you can to stand up and fight for yourself, those you love, and the things you believe in. And like we mentioned before, the antagonist of the novel is essentially the embodiment of hatred and violence, and the fight against hate and violence by a black, lesbian, neurodivergent protagonist is an especially meaningful one. Fink explores the ways in which hate manifests itself in the American system and its very psyche. It’s an interesting analysis of how the country has been experienced and perceived by citizens and international spectators alike, viewing the country from its place on the world stage; especially with the events of the last few years in the United States. And every fighter against the antagonist has been impacted by it in some way: whether they’ve lost a family member or friend, watched helplessly as a stranger was killed, or were part of the system protecting the baddies but felt a profound injustice about it all. With this being the nature of our players, the novel’s focus on mental health, trauma, death, and grieving is a beautiful yet heart-wrenching nod to the resilience of humanity, the strength that we share even when experiencing the most difficult moments of our life, and our undeniable ability to bounce back. With the mix of emotional impact, brilliant storytelling, and Fink’s quirky sense of humour – this novel has it all. We couldn’t recommend it more.

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