According to Susan Cooper, who wrote the foreword to the 2003 edition of Peter Pan, the tale of Peter Pan first appeared in 1902 as a story within the book The Little White Bird by J. M. Barrie. Peter Pan’s story was later published separately as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, which Barrie would turn into the 1904 play Peter Pan, or the Boy who Wouldn’t Grow Up. When the full-length book followed the play in 1911, Barrie titled it Peter and Wendy, but this name has not stood the test of time. Today we call the book, simply, Peter Pan. In Jenny Boully’s Not Merely Because of the Unknown That Was Stalking Towards Them, this tradition of telling stories within stories; of continuing to rename and retell the same story under different contexts still prevails. Reading Boully’s book calls forth the image of a stack of Russian dolls, each one resting inside another. Each time we open one container and believe that we have revealed everything there is to reveal, we find another container, another story; another opportunity to name something familiar and make it our own.
The novel Peter Pan has many troubling aspects when viewed through today’s modern lens. It is often sexist, and too preoccupied with etiquette. Also, rather than being charming, Peter often comes off as too cocky, and Wendy too eager to fit into her predetermined gender role. However, there were a few interesting things about the story, despite these objections. Take, for example, the severe blurring of roles in the relationship between Peter and Wendy. Are they lovers? Are they mother and son? Are they siblings? This quandary is the emotional center of Boully’s book. As she retells the story of Peter and Wendy, she focuses on the universal theme of unrequited love. The supposedly whimsical and light children’s story transforms into something much more mature, much darker, as Wendy’s feelings of abandonment are at center stage. Most people have felt the sting of rejection that Wendy feels when Peter does not reciprocate her feelings for him. The fact that the audience can so readily empathize with Wendy’s character is part of what makes Boully’s book so haunting, and so intense an experience.
From the very beginning, we witness Wendy’s longing.
“These things may fit inside a thimble: a pinch of salt, a few drops of water, the tip of a woman's ring finger. I will give you a thimble, says Wendy. I will give you a thimble so that you will know the weight of my heart. A thimble may protect against pricks, pin pricks, needle pricks, Tinkerpricks, but not hooks, never hooks. When he stabs his hook into you, you will see that his eyes are the blue of forget-me-nots—but that is Hook and not Peter—Peter who will forget you, whose eyes are the color of vague memories, the color not of sky, but of the semblance of sky, the color of brittle-mindedness, of corpse dressings, of forgetting” (1).
As we may recall from the original text of Peter Pan, the thimble becomes a metaphor for a kiss. When Peter and Wendy first meet, Peter has never heard of kisses before. When Wendy mentions giving Peter a kiss, he first believes that a kiss is a physical object, which leads to an exchange. Wendy gives Peter a thimble and Peter gives Wendy an acorn button. Thus, as we can see, Boully plays with these images throughout her text; we feel Peter’s apprehension as the blurring of borders between lover and mother becomes more apparent.
Boully’s utilization of the stream of consciousness literary technique, repetition, run-on sentences, and her reliance upon intuition rather than logic help the reader relate with Wendy’s quiet desperation and preoccupation with Peter Pan and the life they had in Neverland.
Looking at this excerpt from the beginning of the book illustrates the way Boully plays with images and the aforementioned literary techniques:
“But the rocking chair appears to be missing a little something. If you hang the birdcage there, we'll hear its singing. Keep the curtains sheer drawn over the four poster—that’s the kind of bed I would like to have. I will can the preserves; I will can the preserves so that come autumn, come autumn when I have hung up the dustpan, you will have this small bit of apricot to remember. Me by. I don’t think I quite believe in that anymore, and besides, this here tooth has fallen out; it's the last one I've needed for quite a while. I will cut the slices of apple for you; I will shake the grove of bramble bushes for you; the raspberries, too tart, too tart, I will lemon and sugar them for you, 'cause that is what mother has taught. My dear, did I write down all of my symptoms this morning? Has the paper been left right on our doorstep? I do believe, Wendy, I do believe that Smee has stolen it” (11).
We immediately move from a birdcage, to curtains over a bed, to preserves and apricots, to teeth and apple slices to bramble bushes before the paragraph is even complete. One surprising image follows another in a constant flow of visceral emotional experiences and reactions. This book thrives on a non-linear narrative of swiftly remembered moments. It has no clear beginning, end, or resolution, except the one that the reader provides himself or herself, by filling in the empty spaces with his/her own story.
There were a few things, however, that are puzzling about the book. Following the main text on each page, is a footnoted portion entitled The Home Under Ground. We have witnessed Boully’s preoccupation with footnotes in her earlier works, such as The Body and [One Love Affair].* She uses footnotes again here, though their purpose is hard to pinpoint this time. It seems, however, that the main text takes place outside of Neverland, while the footnotes are reflections garnered within Neverland. This is a text that keeps the reader guessing; a text that continues to inspire questions long after reading it.
This retelling is valuable because by bringing the true darkness of the story to the forefront, Boully’s text is not masquerading as something it is not, which is a problem identified in the original. It is not often that a response to a literary work is more successful than the original work, but that is certainly the case with Not Merely Because of the Unknown That Was Stalking Toward Them.
***This review can also be found in Bone Bouquet