Following several futile attempts to communicate with her cats, ELS librarian Samantha reviews Emily Kenny’s debut novel The Extraordinary Adventures of Alice Tonks.
Alice Tonks was having the worst day ever.
Emily Kenny does not waste a single second in her debut novel The Extraordinary Adventures of Alice Tonks, introducing us to Alice, an autistic 11-year-old we instantly believe in and root for, and a story that quickly takes off, soaring through narrative twists and turns, as nimble and clever as the animals that populate its pages.
Alice’s worst day begins on a beach – which she hates – on the first day of school – which she also hates. Pebblewood School, according to Alice’s Gran will be a fresh start, but Alice’s attempt to be Nice Alice, the smiley, worry-free version of herself who does normal things, like shake hands, ‘even though the teacher had sweaty palms and smelled faintly of boiled ham’, is failing, the noise of the beach, the people, the seaweed that coils around her feet, the octopus ‘squirming in her belly’, becomes too much. Alice shouts at her Gran, running past her new classmates and their parents, her cheeks burning ‘with fury, shame and embarrassment’. After a brief interaction with Timothy Crossley-Herbert the Third, a kind, awkward boy who has troubles of his own, Alice sits on the rocks, staring up at her new school ‘perched high on the clifftop like a bird of prey about to swoop.’ Except the bird that does swoop down, the actual bird, the acting talking bird, is a seagull. And it needs Alice’s help. A talking seagull. A secret mission. Alice’s extraordinary adventures have begun!
Talking animals are my literary catnip. Give me a talking cat – ideally one with a sardonic side – and I am in heaven. Luckily for me, Alice Tonks, much to her surprise, is a Switcher. As Constance, the imperious library cat (heaven), puts it, ‘a switcher is that extraordinarily rare thing: a useful human’. Alice can talk to animals. All kinds of animals. Alice’s arrival at Pebblewood School could not have come at a better time: animals are being taken from the school grounds, snatched ‘on a scale that’s never been seen before.’ Led by Constance and Agent T (the seagull), the Loyal Society for the Prevention of Danger to Animals (LSPDA), ask Alice for help. In her investigations, Alice comes across a variety of animals, including Red, a wild fox wary of humans, and Ebenezer, a streetwise rat I can see happily scurrying through a Terry Pratchett novel, who learn to trust in Alice’s bravery and strength, even as she struggles to trust in herself.
Alongside her new animal friends, Alice also forms friendships with Tim and Ottie, her seemingly posh and perfect roommate. Both of these relationships are skillfully drawn, capturing the petty jealousies and uncertainties of new friendship, especially at a time in life when being popular, that easy pass, can become more important than being yourself. Alice, Tim and Ottie eventually establish a bond that comes from accepting themselves and each other, free of masks and free of secrets. The theme of masking your true self – whether it is Alice having to control her stimming, Ottie living up to her family’s grand reputation, or certain characters (ahem) assuming new identities – is prevalent throughout the novel. As with Ramya, the protagonist of Elle McNicoll’s Like A Charm, Alice’s autism does not make her an unlikely hero. Instead, it makes her uniquely capable of being a hero. Alice’s great empathy for animals is part of her gift. Her experience as an autistic person is an essential part of her. She can handle it.
“But I am different,” Alice said. “I’ve always been different, and I always will be. Autism is who I am. Switching could be too. You should have trusted me.” (The Extraordinary Adventures of Alice Tonks, p. 228)
Flavia Sorrentino’s jacket art and chapter headings are a joy, adding beauty and wildness to a book that already feels so alive. In The Extraordinary Adventures of Alice Tonks, Emily Kenny has refreshed the classic boarding school story, taking us on a jaunty adventure that is full of charm, mystery, humour, and – most wonderfully – talking animals.