What I have always loved about Magic Realist Press decks is how they always manage to create an unanchored, imaginative universe whose atmosphere bends effortlessly to whatever reading style you have. This is the sensation I always have with all of their decks. People either love them or are indifferent to them. They give me a sense of a floating universe – Victorian, Gothic, Menagerie, Baroque, Romantic - which the reader can slip into and make their own. So it was with a little trepidation (I have to admit) that I followed the seemingly unending progress of The Alice Tarot. I had reservations. I knew what my reservations were. It was singular actually. A reservation. Here was something with a narrative, a basis, an anchor. This would not be a deck with an imaginary universe. It had well-known features, established characters, a beginning, middle and end. It wouldn’t be quite as adrift as their other decks. It was a deck that would require a substantial knowledge of a literary text. No flights of fancy because there was a story and you would need to know the story to be able to fit the 78 vignettes into some semblance of order, logic and relevance.
Let me confess at the outset that I am not an expert on the Alice books. I read them shortly after university (over twenty years ago now). I had an understanding of where they fitted into the literary timeline - what comes before, what comes after, that sort of thing – nonsense verse and Dodgson’s eccentricities, as well as the more familiar episodes and characters – but they are not books which I feel I have a complete grasp of. For all their intoxicating strangeness, Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass have never really been favourite books of mine in the literary canon, even though I admire them for their imaginative, hallucinatory power and allegory. When decks come out with a theme, I always feel that I really need to know the inspiration behind them very well indeed in order to do them justice. There will be readers (I’m sure of it) who will have never read the Alice books and will ride along on the crest of intuitiveness, proudly “tossing” the Little White Book and I wonder – I really do – where this deck will take them, what they will get out of it. Whichever way you look at it, you need to know the book at least a bit. With my insecurity about whether I would know the text in sufficient detail, I ordered the companion book (after having ordered the deck) to jog my memory. I am so glad I did. Is the book absolutely necessary (I know you will ask)? No, but it opens up the deck in a way that not even just reading the Lewis Carroll books would, because the book not only helps you with the story and its respective tarot slices but gives insight into the whole approach by Karen Mahony and Alex Ukolov and elucidates Carroll’s book as seen in the context of a tarot deck, through a tarot prism, Carroll’s book in the context of esotericism, reading the book versus reading cards. There are fascinating chapters on Alice and Psychoanalysis and Alice The Esoteric and The Mythic. Plus the last sixty pages have an abridged retelling of the stories, with fragments of the original text and the corresponding cards in the margin so that you can see where they are taken from in the narrative. This in itself is invaluable. There is always the underlying feeling with a deck such as this that the links might be a little tenuous but the more you deepen your understanding of the deck, the more you feel this is definitely not the case.
But enough of the book (though I recommend it unhesitatingly), it was the deck I meant to write about. And it is a very meticulous, intelligent, beautifully thorough and substantial deck to work with. There is a depth of understanding and passion on the part of the creators that really comes through when you hold the deck in your hand and read with it. This is a deck that has fermented (you can tell) by dint of having been worked on, pondered and rethought over five years. It is also a deck which, given the unity of characters and settings, lends itself very well to simply laying the cards out and reading a a narrative, as a story. I know we are often told to read tarot in this way and I hear people asking for decks that are good for “storytelling.” This is such a deck. I don’t always read in this way but with this deck, it’s almost irresistable. I have the Limited Edition, the Standard Edition, the book (and also the silk and “overlaid in gold” paisley bag which features The Caterpillar Hierophant smoking his hookah) but would like to focus on the standard deck for review purposes here. The first thing that struck me was the delicacy and richness of colouring. I don’t know if this is the quality of the printing or whether this was something which was heavily worked at the creation stage (or probably both). Each time I take it out I am amazed at the richness and variety of the colouring. The photographic work has certain – what would you call them? Passages? Details? - that look like painting. The backgrounds and skies are breathtaking, the juxtaposition of fabrics and textures (this of course is the result of five years of research and perfectionism) at times make me think of the Pre-Raphaelites (see the background of The Star, for example). And the light! There are cards like the Four of Wands whose background light reminds me of the finest details of Ford Maddox Brown landscapes.
I assume that the aim of this deck was to create a sense of magic and strangeness. In any case, this is what the deck most conveys to me. Yet for all its work and rework, there are some startlingly raw and emotional images here; it isn’t just a deck with staged tableaus. The Mock Turtle as the Hermit, tears streaming down his face – such a beautiful and moving image – is perhaps my favourite card alongside the Four of Wands. You wouldn’t need to know the story in depth to see in this image all the pain of exclusion and isolation. Much has already been written about the metallic sheen on the cards which truly does give an otherworldly shimmer – but I think it is on the Hermit card (and Four of Wands) that it looks its best. The cardstock has a pleasingly tactile matt, slightly rough finish to it which is unlike any of their other decks.
Of course there are so many cards which I love and cannot mention them all here, but I think what is important to stress with this deck is that my initial misgivings about it being chained to a narrative (so somehow less able to give free rein to the imagination) were unfounded. Anyone who feels the link between tarot and transformation will feel the power of this deck and make it their own. And there are two Lovers cards (always a treat). My favourite is the one with the elegant and sensual flamingos, necks in the form of a heart, on the Queen’s croquet lawn. Are they male and female, I wonder, after this week reading in the newspaper about two male flamingos at Edinburgh Zoo who adopted a chick that had fallen out of its nest and been subsequently rejected by its mother. This card could be a same sex Lovers card with a difference. You see, even beyond the literary world of Alice, there are unusual surprises to be had in the real world. It isn’t just a story. We all inhabit our own Wonderland.