Wicked by Gregory Maguire – Book Review

wicked-book-coverThe full title of the book is Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, and it’s less of a prequel and more like a complete re-imagining of the world known from the classic children’s story by L. Frank Baum and the 1939 Wizard of Oz. I wonder if at this point it got overshadowed by the mega-successful musical – I haven’t seen it but I imagine it reworked the hell out of what is ultimately a very pessimistic, even bleak, story.

The book is split into five sections, each dealing with a significant period from the life of Elphaba, who will grow up to be the infamous Wicked Witch. Born in Munchkinland to a priest and his wife, a high-born heiress whose husband’s absences don’t stop her from having a sex life, little Elphie has green skin, razor-sharp teeth and an allergy to water which is never explained (neither is it explained how she manages to drink liquids). In a later chapter, she is an intense, idealistic teenager who is shunned by her snooty schoolmates, including her roommate Glinda who might not actually be as superficial and empty-headed as she appears to be. While in school, Elphaba becomes passionate about fighting for the rights of the Animals, who are sentient beings as opposed to mere animals and live and work alongside humans as equals. The Wizard of Oz is gradually restricting the freedom of the Animals and threatens to turn them into slaves to be owned and used for labour. This involvement sets Elphaba on a long, long journey which eventually ends up with her meeting Dorothy as the Wicked Witch of the West.

I’ve rarely read a more frustrating book. There was so much to love about it – the whole premise of re-telling the story from the point of view of the character who so far has been portrayed as Just Plain Evil is rich with potential. Maguire’s prose is often striking and powerful, with vivid descriptions and a good dose of the wacky, macabre and perverse. Sometimes the language gets way too ponderous and some overly articulate conversations between Elphaba and her schoolmates got on my nerves – it takes me right out of the story when a character starts to sound like a walking thesis – but overall I really enjoyed the writing, the inventiveness and the bizarre and humorous little details. Plus every chapter is preceded by an etching-style illustration which are absolutely gorgeous, as is the cover art on my edition. It’s the kind of thing that makes me love real books even more.

Story-wise though the book is total shambles, with a meandering plot that seems to reach a climax by the end of the third section and then just noodles around, until it’s suddenly time to tie everything up with the events of Wizard of Oz and the plot gets even more contrived and jumpy than before. I would not be surprised if the musical actually improved the story. Characters’ motivations and actions are often either poorly explained, implausible or just plain dumb. Oh and it’s a bad idea to get attached to the secondary characters, because once a chapter is over most of them get dumped from the story never to be seen again, or at best they reappear as a brief cameo. While the story takes place all over the country of Oz and by right should have an epic sweep about it, every setting in every chapter is so small and confined you get very little sense of the broader society, and the supposedly major events that happen in it. The book tackles some weighty subjects – religion, political oppression, the morality of terror acts, the nature of good and evil – but because the damn thing is so scattered neither feels particularly well-explored.

Elphaba is a character you’re predisposed to be feel sympathy for, as her green skin makes her an outcast right from her birth, but she also becomes the victim of Maguire’s choppy storytelling. For the first three chapters, she is mostly seen through the eyes of other characters, which makes her somewhat distant, and at times she spouts dialogue that tries way too hard to be witty. Her motivations, particularly in the second half of the book, often make little sense, as does the inexplicable coldness that she displays towards one particular character (without spoiling anything, the details of how this character came to be in her life is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve read).

So in the end, an infuriating book, but a memorable one too, without a doubt.

I haven’t seen the Wicked musical, or read Baum’s book, or seen the movie; my knowledge of Oz actually comes from the series by a Russian author Alexandr Volkov. The first book is a very close re-telling (or a rip-off, depending on your view) of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and there are five original sequels – four really good ones and one so-so. They also have some socialist undertones, though not overly blatant thank god, unlike some of my childhood favourites which, in retrospect, are so heavy with propaganda it makes you want to puke. Overall, it’s a fantastic children’s series in their own right. My edition had some of the most enchanting illustrations I’ve seen in a children’s book – I re-read them over and over just to look at the pictures.

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