Review: And Then She Fell by Alicia Elliott

Review: And Then She Fell by Alicia Elliott

My Quick Take: I was amazed by the richness of this beautiful, sad, strange and ultimately hopeful novel that blended Alice in Wonderland vibes with Indigenous spirituality, all against the background of postpartum illness.

Thanks to NetGalley and Penguin Random House Canada for a gifted copy in exchange for my honest review.

“...for who wants to hear an incessant hammer banging down on one’s carefully constructed version of “real life”? Who wants to admit there was a moment where they saw disaster coming, but chose to do nothing, only for the impending wave to crest and crash, forcing their carefully constructed version of “real life” to give way and collapse entirely?”
First, let me say: And Then She Fell will surely be one of my favourite books of the year.

It surprised and delighted me with how it engaged all of my reader’s mind. It had me questioning the border between reality and psychosis, and the nature of illness. I had some fun with allusions to Alice in Wonderland and my burgeoning knowledge of Indigenous story. It made me examine the insidiousness of racism, and acknowledge my own privilege. And the trick is that Alicia Elliott both fully engages with the hard, gritty, awful parts of the story and keeps balance with the use of humour and hope.

The prose was efficient and spare when it needed to be, more fleshed out when called for. Elliott’s ability to write a well-structured and beautifully crafted novel from beginning to end is admirable and so satisfying. The narrative never got bogged down; there was enough room for both intellectual engagement with the book as well as plenty of just darn good storytelling.

Alice is attempting to write the creation story of Sky Woman (also called Mature Flowers) from her Haundenosaunee heritage, which forms some of the book’s narrative. Alice is Mohawk, and married to Steve, a white man who’s studying the Mohawk culture. She’s moved from her reservation to Toronto with him, has lost her mother, and has just had a baby girl named Dawn. On the surface, the story starts as one of postpartum depression, sleep deprivation and postpartum psychosis.

The first half of the book plays subtly with these ideas. I found myself wondering: is this psychosis, or perhaps some magical realism? Maybe a manifestation of deep spirituality in some sense? The story’s events parallel Alice’s sense of dislocation in Toronto. This is new territory for her, and unpredictable in its offerings. Around any corner is something to surprise her, something disconcerting. Alice is through the looking glass here, away from her familiar culture and family. Even Steve, whom she counts as a lover and an ally, is suspect. He’s taking Mohawk language lessons while Alice can’t speak her own language, which physically pains her.

Alice’s postpartum illness progresses gradually, and Elliott writes with incredible frankness and honesty about this experience. She goes the distance for Alice, allowing us into her world. She doesn't shy away from the hardest parts of it, like the violent, intrusive thoughts that some women experience postpartum. In one pivotal scene, she’s taken Dawn to the grocery and liquor stores and Alice’s sense of reality hangs precariously in the balance. It is a brilliant piece of writing. Elliott cleverly uses Alice’s experiences with the other shoppers and the check-out people to draw me into questioning what is psychosis and what is real. And real, here, is anti-Indigenous racism. Her “paranoia” is centred on having her baby taken away, racist jabs, and malevolent looks from others. She hears racial slurs in her head.
“Suddenly my feet are hitting concrete sidewalk again. Strangers’ confused, dismissive or judgmental looks hurtle toward me as I look down and push Dawn faster…I turn down our street and the houses around me are the houses of people who despise me, their windows flocked with expensive lace or velvet or brocade curtains that look like blinking eyes, hating. The closest one leans in toward me, its shadow stretching over us.

You don’t belong here. Get out, you Indian slut.
What gets me about this section is that Alice’s paranoia is both the beginning of postpartum psychosis, and also an extension of her life experiences. Elliott has placed me in Alice’s shoes. It brings me into an uncomfortable space of uncertainty and hypervigilance and I question the referential looks and comments for racist intent. As a non-Indigenous person, I never need to think about that in my day to day, a clear example of my privilege.

There’s an interesting pivot in the book near-ish the end, and I was really surprised by it. I don’t want to say anything more, because it’s truly interesting to figure out what is happening and what it all means. I’m curious what other readers’ reception to Elliott’s plot choices here will be, but I for one liked it.

Elliott writes from Alice’s point of view, but at times takes almost mini-asides in the narrative. Perhaps she is using the story to wrestle with her own experiences, dilemmas and conundrums about Canadian life. There is excellent discussion of capitalism, art and creativity, and the nature of success. Elliott has been open with her own experience of postpartum psychosis, and that makes a lot of sense given how real and honest Alice’s experience feels.

Back to the question of what exactly has happened to Alice: What is the border between reality, delusion or the metaphysical? I thought hard about it, but in the end Elliott led me to realise that perhaps it doesn’t matter so much. And thus the ending. It's so good, with lines taken from Alice’s telling of Sky Woman/Mature Flowers’ story, as she contemplates why she fell from the sky. Was she pushed, did she jump, was it an accident?
“It took awhile–years, actually–but eventually she understood: the most important thing wasn’t that she had fallen. The most important thing was that she had been caught.

That she had allowed herself to be caught.”
This is a beautiful book with a bit of a harsh, satisfying edge. I hope you consider picking it up.