Helen Smith's "Alison Wonderland" already has a strange life--what with her psychic postman--but when she becomes a private detective things get even more bizarre when she meets a man who loves a shig, "the fattest, woolliest animal on earth, the product of a union between a pig and a sheep". Being an investigator isn't all glamour and Alison often has to struggle to hold on to the difference between working in a boring job and being a detective working in a boring job. But at least it's not just the expected, run of the mill sleaze, double-crossing and corruption; there's also secret crayfish fishermen, lemon sweets and, of course, the shig. It's this mammoth animal that lies at the heart of Project Brown Dog--an investigation that Alison leads to uncover sinister animal eugenics being orchestrated in the name of commerce by a company in Weymouth.
This is the case that lends Alison Wonderland narrative drive, although Helen Smith's tentative, exploratory style sits uncomfortably within the adventure story set-up. Smith's strength comes to the fore when she's drifting, observing the incidentals of life; "the comforting smells like dog's paws when they wake up from a long sleep" and the rustling of voracious Japanese knotweed as it invades the pavements of Brixton. There's even an intricate Venn diagram sketched to ponder the sagging skin and drooping breasts on show at Tooting Bec Lido. It's this clean, seemingly effortless voice that gives Alison Wonderland an impressive edge and will make her second novel one worth watching out for. --Jane Honey
Only occasionally does a piece of cult fiction leap out and demand immediate cult status. Alison Wonderland is one. This is a deliberately strange book, lurking in an indeterminate no-woman's land between the wave of "girlie diaries" and more conventionally eccentric thrillers. Bridget Jones with a plot, sort of.
Our eponymous heroine is actually called Alison Temple. Divorced from an unfaithful husband, she has signed up as an investigator with the detective agency that uncovered his infidelity, and spends most of her time working in offices, spying on other supposedly unfaithful husbands. The agency is run by a middle-aged woman called Ella Fitzgerald with a distinctly dodgy brother called Clive.
The plot thickens when she is sent on an investigation into the misuse of genetic manipulation to create hybrid animals, and strays into the path of secretive security firms protecting the programs. But this is not as sinister as it sounds. This is, at least in part, a "new girlie" book, remember. Alison is more concerned about the potential - or lack of it - of her relationship with a failed inventor called Jeff, who lives downstairs, writes poetry to her and eats her cereal.
The product of the genetic manipulation is a "shig", a giant cross between a sheep and a pig, designed to provide vast quantities of both wool and meat, and loved deeply, if not wholesomely, by its keeper. Alison's odyssey - all the way to Weymouth and back, picking up a foundling baby named Phoebe en route - is conducted with Taron, who has a "hundred candles" smile and an address book full of club-crazy, druggy friends.
In short, the plot is little more than a loose framework for Smith to give us her astute, pointed by essentially tangential observations on everything from tampon advertisements to Tooting Bec lido. Wry, witty and aggressively self-conscious, Alison Wonderland flirts with topics from heterosexual sex to lesbianism and single parenthood, feminism in a macho culture and male emotional vulnerability. But only fleetingly. A bit, perhaps, like the modern woman.
Smith is at the very least a minor phenomenon. Watch this book blossom in every office handbag. -- Peter Millar--The Times, 1 May 1999