You fall out of a window, fly into the night and find yourself in a different world, where the rules of your reality don’t exist. You come back because you miss your real family; you hit puberty, you grow up, you move on. That’s how portal fantasies work. It’s isn’t often than an adult will go back to their childhood fantasy; it is rarer still that they will find it to be just as charming as it used to be. That’s what A.C. Wise explores, in her first full length novel Wendy, Darling.
Based loosely on the characters of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan stories, Wendy, Darling follows the lead titular character as an adult, a grown woman now with a family of her own—a husband, a young daughter and a home she manages as best she can with help from a close friend, while constantly holding off her own personal demons—those that have haunted her since her return from Neverland as a child. Barrie’s play When Wendy Grew Up featured an adult Wendy who allowed her daughter Jane to go to Neverland with Peter, when he shows up with no concept of how much time has passed in the real world, and does not recognise Wendy as the same child he took away to play mother to the Lost Boys. But Wise’s Wendy gives no such consent when she finds Peter in her daughter’s bedroom one night, leading the young child away in the same way he had her mother. Wendy is horrified, and while she has to lie about having no knowledge of who abducted Jane, she knows that she is the only one who can get her back.
The narrative shifts between Wendy’s perspective as she attempts to find Jane, Jane’s perspective as she attempts to fight Peter’s spell that is pushing her into forgetting her own family, and flashbacks to Wendy’s childhood, her experiences in Neverland and then at St Bernadette’s and after. The Darling children are all adults now. Their parents have died. John has taken over as de facto head of the family, Michael suffers from PTSD after witnessing the horrors of the war, and Wendy, unable to forget Neverland, has been institutionalised at a mental asylum.
John and Michael were younger, and so forgot about Neverland much sooner than Wendy, who held on to the memories and as a result was considered delusional for many years, until eventually John has her admitted into St Bernadette’s, a mental health facility that seems to focus on anything but. Wendy is mistreated at the institution, locked in and forced to submit to inhumane treatments of isolation and hydrotherapy to ‘cure’ her of her fantasies. While there, she meets a young Native American woman named Mary who reminds her of Tiger Lily. Mary and Wendy form a deep friendship, a sisterhood that helps Wendy manage the trauma of St. Bernadette’s, and survive the place. Once Wendy is allowed to leave the institution (when John has arranged a marriage for her), she comes back for Mary, hiring her as a cook in her new home, and finding some sort of stability in her new life.
Until of course, Peter returns.
Wise’s Peter is very much seen through an adult lens. All the impulsive actions and flights of fancy that may have made him fun, now are clearly nothing of the sort. He’s a narcissistic bully, and unquestionably so. The Lost Boys live in constant fear of him, as he manipulates them into fitting in to his fantasies, acting on his demands and whims.
It’s for this fraught forced family of boys that Peter has abducted Wendy’s daughter Jane finds. Wendy immediately realises that she’s the only one who can get her daughter back, and so with a literal leap of faith, jumps out of the window and finds the second star on the right to make her way back to Neverland.
Wendy’s return to Neverland isn’t just heavy because she’s arrived bearing the weight of her kidnapped child, she’s also burdened by the constant sense of darkness and despair that seems to now be pervasive in every aspect of Neverland, including her memories of her first time there. A very frightening darkness is at the heart of the place, a darkness that Wendy has some fleeting flashbacks of, but somehow can’t quite access in her mind, fully. What is Peter hiding? Why does he have no shadow? And why has everything that was once filled with light now faded away into nothingness? There are primal desires and fears that fill the island, and shadow selves that Wendy, as an adult, has to face in order to rescue her daughter.
Peter is the primal Pan, the child who is nothing but Id, full of violent emotions, sudden spite, and anger that belies his youthful appearance. He is not, of course, just a ‘boy’ who refuses to grow up. He is, and has always been something far more powerful; ancient and frightening, controlling and cruel. A myth, a monster.
Wendy, Darling is undoubtedly a feminist story. At times it may feel unsubtly woke, with commentary on everything from the traditional roles that thrust upon young girls in post War England, marriages that may be different to the heteronormative nuclear ones expected from adults at that time, characters who identify as asexual, racism against indigenous peoples, toxic masculinity, post war PTSD, misogyny and plain old ordinary bigotry. It isn’t at all a light read, there aren’t many moments of humour or levity; it is dark, complicated and aware. It is also intelligent and deftly executed.
Peter wanted Wendy to be a mother to everyone in Neverland, but without understanding the strength of a mother, or what lengths she’d go to help her child safe. Wendy, on her return to Neverland is exactly what Peter always wanted her to be—a mother. A.C. Wise hasn’t retold the story of Peter Pan & Wendy, she’s created an entirely new narrative, one that is fully engaged with the power & strength of motherhood.
Wendy, Darling is available from Titan Books.
Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction and appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories and interviews writers for the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.