I’m a sucker when it comes to reimagining classic children’s stories, perhaps none more so than Peter Pan. I loved Brom’s The Child Thief when I read it a year and a half ago. When I stumbled across Betwixt and Between by Jessica Stilling and read the description, I got excited. One of my favorite ideas is that Neverland is where the souls of deceased children go so reading that idea fleshed out into a novel was something I had to do. However, Stilling’s novel is less fleshed out than I had hoped.
Neverland is a place between Before and After, where young boys who have died go while their parents mourn their loss. Peter Pan watches over them and ushers them on when the time comes. Ten-year-old Preston Tumber’s arrival in Neverland is unconventional and Peter takes notice. Having been poisoned in the Before, Preston thought he knew who was behind it, but when it turns out he and those in the world he left behind were wrong, Preston sets out to find his real killer and protect his friends who might still be in danger. Back in the Before, Preston’s mother, Claire, struggles to cope with the loss of her son and the questions surrounding his murder.
Betwixt and Between alternates between three narratives. In addition to glimpses of Preston in Neverland and Claire in the present, the reader is given a version of events that ties in both the Darlings and Peter Pan author, J.M. Barrie. There is no set pattern to how or when the narratives switch, which left the pacing a little choppy. There are several subplots and threads that do little to add to what is happening in the novel. Of course, the mystery at the heart of the novel (who killed Preston and why) was a bit of a let down. Everything about it felt too convenient (and obvious). The way Stilling adapted Neverland and incorporated who certain groups were and why they were there (the mermaids, the Indians, the pirates, etc.) was clever but not engaging enough to cover the weaknesses.
The storyline that felt least forced was Claire and her grief. From the opening worry at her child not having arrived home on time to the desperate need to capture what little time she had with him in her perpetual scrapbooking, Claire’s struggle to redefine herself in the context of her loss is the most painful but also the most genuine story told in Betwixt and Between. There were moments in the Peter Pan/Wendy thread that got at some of the deeper themes very nicely, particularly along the lines of the trade-offs between being a child and a grown up. His exchanges with Hook are engaging (even if they come off as a tad misogynistic) and manage to serve more than just the feeble driving plot.
I ultimately found Betwixt and Between to be disappointing. It carries so much promise but can’t quite conjure enough lovely thoughts and pixie dust to maintain flight, falling short but landing without major injury. It’s not my favorite reinterpretation of Peter Pan but it doesn’t disgrace Neverland either. It simply tried for too much.