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Book Review: Alias Hook

By (July 17, 2014) No Comment

Alias Hookalias cook cover

by Lisa Jensen

Thomas Dunne Books, 2014


The ready accusation of opportunism that rises in the throat of any reader encountering something like Lisa Jensen’s Alias Hook falls silent almost immediately upon reading, and that’s a very happy thing; on the surface, the book looks like just another grab at the mega-success of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, which wildly popularized the gimmick of injecting some sympathy into the story of a well-known fictional villain. Just as Maguire’s book (and the ghastly, unlistenable Broadway musical it spawned) attempts to fashion a hero out of the The Wizard of Oz‘s Wicked Witch of the West, Jensen’s book gives us a new and very different version of the villainous Captain Hook who stalks through J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Not quite unrecognizable: Jensen’s James Benjamin Hookbridge of 17th-century Bristol is a hard man and a dandy, but that’s about as far as it goes – where Barrie’s Captain Hook is a fool and a coward, Jensen’s is a revelation, as much an update of the Flying Dutchman as of any pulp villain. Through the spell of a sorceress, this Hook and his men find themselves stranded in the exotic fantasy realm of Neverland, where all Hook’s old pirate-habits are rendered frustratingly pointless:

Once it was my habit under sail to prowl my quarterdeck at night, where the sting of salt spray and fresh breeze might harry my wits into better order. It’s an altogether different experience aboard the gloomy Rouge with her canvas all reefed up, scarcely ever a breath of wind on the still water, and the unchanging Neverland stars as stationary as a painted scrim.

Hook and his men aren’t in Neverland long before they meet its diminutive master:

I shall never forget my first sight of him, soaring overhead as I stood my ground amidships, my moonstruck men cowering in disbelief. he was not a very little boy, perhaps eleven or twelve years of age, and yet in possession of a full set of tiny baby teeth, which made his expression eerie. That and the keen light in his gray eyes peering out from under his dirty, tawny hair. Green leafy vines wound over his shoulder and around his middle, over a pelt of ragged fur. He went bare-legged above boots of furry skins, with a short sword at his side and a knife stuck in his boot. In one hand he grasped the musical Pan pipes which gave him his name. He hovered in the air above me, a light like a firefly buzzing his shoulders, and whooped with delight.

By this point Jensen’s inversion of Barrie’s original is almost complete (and not as difficult as it might seem at first; after all, who, reading Barrie’s stories, actually likes Peter Pan?), lacking only the key element as old as Milton’s Lucifer: politics. Right can’t be called wrong nor wrong right, but virtually anything can be made sympathetic if it’s set opposite an oppressing power. Jensen’s Hook is a man trapped in a world of children and, crucially, forever the plaything of that world’s ruler:

“It’s Hook or me this time,” the boy [Pan] jeered as the massacre began. But it’s never him. And it’s never me. Since then, he has defeated me innumerable times, but never quite to the death. He wills it so, and his will rules all. How often have I felt my skin pierced, imagined in my wounded delirium that Death has relented and come for me at last? Yet every time, my blood stops leaking, my flesh knits. Sooner or later, my eyes open again to yet another bleak day, with nothing to show for my pains but another scar on the wreckage of my body.

Is it any wonder I so often tried to kill him? Would not his death break the enchantment of this awful place and release us both? But I can never best him. He flies. He has youth and innocence on his side, and the heartlessness that comes with them. I have only heartlessness, and it is never, ever enough.

Alias Hook‘s wonderful second act introduces a key x-factor into this stable equation in the form of a grown-up mortal woman named Stella Parrish, who finds herself in Neverland and forms an almost-instant connection with Captain Hook, convincing him to change his reactions to his dedicated boy-foe. It’s at this point that Jensen fully embraces the possibilities of her narrative – ironically, these segments that least resemble anything familiar from Peter Pan make the book’s most absorbing reading.

Jensen has said that her original inspiration for the book was her viewing of the last live-action movie adaptation of Barrie’s famous story, in which Captain Hook was played by British actor Jason Isaacs. Now, a decade later, announcement has just been made of a new live-action movie adaptation, this one starring the inimitable Christopher Walken as Hook. Will that Hook be a more subtly sympathetic version of the character? If an example is sought, a better, more intriguing one could hardly be found than Alias Hook.