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BOOK REVIEW : Sad Tumble Into Warped Wonderland : DIGGING TO AUSTRALIA by Lesley Glaister . Atheneum: $19, 214 pages

August 17, 1993|JENNIFER HOWARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When she tumbled down that famous rabbit hole, Alice discovered that even Wonderland has its dark side--every White Rabbit comes with a grotesque Queen of Hearts shouting "Off with their heads!"

Lewis Carroll, of course, never let Wonderland's pernicious tendencies get the better of Alice; the Queen of Hearts provokes more laughter than tears.

Some 130 years later, dreamy girls in search of Wonderland aren't likely to be so lucky, at least not in Lesley Glaister's third novel, "Digging to Australia."

Poised unhappily on the brink of adolescence, stranded in a dull English suburb, Jennifer Maybee is an unlikely modern Alice to begin with. A loner, she's not popular, not pretty, not the happy child of summer afternoons that her Victorian predecessor was.

She resents the eccentricities and inept attentions of her family, whom she calls Mama and Bob. The latter, a former naturalist, insists on wandering around nude so that everybody has to look at his "giblets." That sort of thing would make it impossible for Jenny to bring friends home, if she had any.

She at least seems to have the power of imagination in her corner, and when life doesn't throw any magic rabbit holes her way, she begins digging her own in the family's back yard--only it's Australia, not Wonderland, that she's aiming for, in tribute to an ancestor named Peggy who stole a peacock and was transported Down Under.

To her astonishment, a few feet down she really does drop through into another world: a footpath, forbidden to her by Mama and Bob, that runs along the family's fenced-in property. Like Alice after the White Rabbit, Jenny follows a skittish stray cat down this primrose path. It leads Jenny to a place that at first seems deliciously out-of-this-world, an old church and graveyard bordered by an overgrown Sleeping Beauty hedge.

Creeping through the brambles, she discovers a long-abandoned playground and claims it as her own Wonderland, her refuge from reality. The spot even comes equipped with a charming Mad Hatter of a fellow named Johnny, who lives in the church, building himself a set of wooden wings, talking of poetry and epiphanies, as whimsical and strangely witty as his literary forebear.

From the beginning, though, something isn't right. Glaister describes the secret spot with the haunted, jittery lyricism of someone who keeps company with ghosts. Imagining that she has engineered an escape from reality, Jenny finds that it has only followed her down the rabbit hole: She meets Johnny, dangerously unpredictable, who spikes his tea (and hers) with whiskey and shares his quarters with a skeleton; her family drops an emotional bombshell whose fallout she can't shake, even in the charmed precincts of the playground.

Nobody's willing to let Jenny have her fantasies in peace; they keep thrusting the ugly truth under her nose. An accomplice in the process of disillusionment, she spins a web of lies to keep Mama and Bob in the dark, perverting Wonderland into a place to smoke cigarettes and pry into other people's secrets. This Alice is a match for any dark things she encounters.

Worse still, it's impossible to shake the feeling that Jenny doesn't deserve Wonderland. Sullen and withdrawn, she can't see past her own dissatisfaction, becoming frighteningly adroit at inflicting pain on those close to her. Mama and Bob may be fruitcakes, but they're gentle ones, even when they do the wrong thing; Jenny just treats them shabbily.

Glaister makes it clear from the beginning that Wonderland has hit the skids; in this world, the Mad Hatter must turn murderous. Alice has decayed too; she's a perversion of dreaming, better suited to muddling through than to seeking out the wonder of things.

It hardly matters that Wonderland lies in shadow, Glaister says, because there isn't anybody left to appreciate it. And that is what makes "Digging to Australia" so bitterly sad.

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