Monday, October 20, 2014

Book Review: Wicked by Gregory McGuire

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

Written by: Gregory McGuire

Published: 1995

Synopsis: When Dorothy triumphed over the Wicked Witch of the West in L. Frank Baum's classic tale, we heard only her side of the story. But what about her arch-nemesis, the mysterious Witch? Where did she come from? How did she become so wicked? And what is the true nature of evil?

Gregory Maguire creates a fantasy world so rich and vivid that we will never look at Oz the same way again. Wicked is about a land where animals talk and strive to be treated like first-class citizens, Munchkinlanders seek the comfort of middle-class stability, and the Tin Man becomes a victim of domestic violence. And then there is the little green-skinned girl named Elphaba, who will grow up to become the infamous Wicked Witch of the West, a smart, prickly, and misunderstood creature who challenges all our preconceived notions about the nature of good and evil.

“People who claim that they're evil are usually no worse than the rest of us... It's people who claim that they're good, or any way better than the rest of us, that you have to be wary of.”

I bought Wicked on a whim after reading Michael's review back in August. It was right around the time I saw Maleficent and I felt a desperate need to see a "reimagining' of a classic villain done right. Or at least I hoped it'd be done right - having not seen the musical I had to hope that all of the fan worship and stellar reviews weren't about to shoot down my hopes.

And guess what guys - my hopes are intact!

In case you've been living under a rock, Wicked is the untold story of the Wicked Witch of the West. Rather than simply be a retelling of The Wizard of Oz from her perspective though, it actually chronicles a much larger time frame - from birth to death. The book can roughly be broken into four time periods in her life. Childhood, university, her post-university anarchist lifestyle and self-imposed exile/Dorothy's era. The entire narrative exists to not only subvert the very well known journey Dorothy takes through Oz and Elphaba's role as the evil witch but to also bring a weighty reality to this supposed technicolour wonderland. It is as much about the politics and morality of Oz as it is about Elphaba, or rather it is through Elphaba's tale that we are forced to remove our rose coloured glasses and realise that perhaps the Wicked Witch isn't the worst thing in Oz.

Before she was the Wicked Witch of the West she was Elphaba (and Elphie), a quiet child with green skin. Her father was a preacher and her mother an unhappy woman, and Elphaba's birth didn't make either of their lives easier. Her father saw her as punishment for his failings, her mother saw her as yet another disappointment in life. Be that as it may, they still loved the girl. Even if their love was maybe more of the stand-offish, hard to tell variety. In order to guarantee her next child wouldn't also be green, Ephie's mother took pills procured by her nanny in the Emerald City. When Elphie's little sister Nessarose is born she isn't green, but she also doesn't have arms. This family and good luck do not go together so well.

Elphie doesn't have an easy life, but neither does anyone else in Oz. The make-up of this imaginary country actually reminded me a great deal of the world in The Hunger Games. The majority of people in Oz are struggling. There is bigotry and new religions clashing heads, poverty and drought, building plans to eliminate the remaining natural landscapes. But in the Emerald City there is wealth and extravagance, and the people in the high society are completely removed from the issues facing the rest of the community. They dance and drink and flit around in expensive outfits, and at the centre of all of this is the wizard. The Wizard is actually quite a lot like he is in the film. He hides behind various masks and stand-ins and has created a mythology about himself that keeps everyone in line. But in the novel he's far more manipulative, pulling the strings of the majority of storylines that fill the book, although very few people seem to notice his presence.

I really adored the way McGuire used Elphaba and her notorious skin as a way to deal with issues of morality and bigotry. Elphie was held at arms length as a child and teased all through her life because of it. As a result she became withdrawn, quiet and struggled to trust any of the "normal" people she encountered. She was never a bad person but she was different, and for some people that's the same thing. So was Elphaba destined to be bad (if she can ever categorically be defined as such) or was she made that way because of the way people treated her? Was her sister (the witch of the East) destined to be born armless or did the pills her mother take transfer a greenish hue for the lack of appendages? How much of our lives is left to fate and how much is decided by our environment? Do we have any say whatsoever in what happens to us? If we're born green are we destined to tread the yellow brick road alone under the suspicious gaze of everyone else?
“One never learns how the witch became wicked, or whether that was the right choice for her~is it ever the right choice? Does the devil ever struggle to be good again, or if so is he not a devil?”
There are a lot of other interesting pieces in this novel. The good witch who is maybe not as good as everyone thinks (but hey, at least she isn't green right?), the slow de-evolution of Animals into animals, magic brooms and familiars and forbidden loves who return to haunt us. This book manages to pack a punch with its social commentary while also just being an entertaining fairytale retelling. You could very easily enjoy this book outside of the feminist, socio-political or moralistic themes, although I think you'd be missing a hell of a lot of the story. I haven't read any of the original novels so I don't know how much this book build onto themes or storylines from the original, but it didn't feel like McGuire was taking any shortcuts. I will say though that the first section of the novel was a little slow for my liking and McGuire does have an unfortunate obsession for occasionally sprinkling in commas, placed every, couple of, words, for, some, reason. There were also a few points in the narrative that felt off - like McGuire wasn't sure how to tie up certain loose ends or bridge two different points. But really, they were very small drops in a very large bucket.

Now that I've finished the book I'm kicking myself that I didn't buy tickets to see the musical when it came to Brisbane last year. It's no wonder it managed to sweep audiences away with its funny, heart-warming and thrilling tale of love, partnership, identity and morals. Not to mention a wicked dark wit.
“I shall pray for your soul,' promised Nessarose.

I shall wait for your shoes,' Elphie answered.”


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