Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Alias Grace - Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s fictional account of a real-life controversial double murder is dotted with passion, dignity and morbidity.

Simple, Serious

Fiction, Non-Fiction

No profanity

Favourite Quote:
Just because a thing has been written down, Sir, does not mean it is God’s truth.

On July 23, 1843, a double murder took place in Canada – of Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper (and mistress) Nancy Montgomery. The murderers were believed to be their employees, Grace Marks and James McDermott.The trial for murder was held in November, 1843, where McDermott was found guilty and was hanged. Grace however got a life sentence due to her age, gender, and her apparent witlessness.Grace was then confined to the penitentiary, and despite some violent behaviour, worked as a trusted servant for the governor. Finally, in 1872, she was granted a pardon to a home provided for her.

Rarely do we read books where the reader is made aware of the sequence of events before dwelling into the details (Chronicles of a death foretold comes to mind). The above story forms the backdrop of Margaret Atwood’s Man Booker Prize shortlisted book “Alias Grace”. After an artful poem summarising the events leading up to the murder, the writer’s story of Grace’s past and present unfolds through a series of conversations between her and Dr. Simon Jordan. Set in 1859, the chapters are introduced with quotes, newspaper articles and expert opinions.  Atwood is clearly sympathetic towards Grace, and one gets a feeling it is because of her assumed “witlessness and weakness of sex”. There are many tongue-in-cheek conversations between the doctor and her , like this for example:
“Then You have given up hope?”
“Hope of what, Sir?” She asked mildly.
Simon felt foolish, as if he’d committed a breach of etiquette.“Well - Hope of being set free.”
 “Now, why would they want to do that, Sir?” She said, “A murderess is not an everyday thing.  As for my hope, I save that for the smaller matters. I live in hopes of having a better breakfast than I had today.”
There are three themes running through the narration – the introduction of the railway lines in Canada, the 1837 Rebellion and Spiritualism.  This motley mix provided a very rich background for the murdered and the murderers:  Grace’s family’s move to Canada for finding work in Railways, Mary Whitney’s pro-democratic thoughts and McDermott’s surly personality due to the after-effects of the rebellion and unravelling the mystery of Grace’s mind through hypnotism.
The book is written in first person narrative from Grace’s point of view and from Simon’s perspective in third-person.  It is unsettling to be inside Grace’s head, and one can immediately gauge that the narrator is unreliable. While talking to Simon, she ends up thinking on how to please him and what he would like to hear, making us unsure on what has been sensationalised by her. There are multiple shades to her personality, as noticed by the courtroom (in reality), by Simon and of course by Grace herself. As she herself admits:
Underneath that is another feeling, a feeling of being wide-eyed awake and watchful. Its like being wakened suddenly in the middle of the night, by a hand over your face, and you sit up with you heart going fast, and no one is there. And underneath that is another feeling still, a feeling like being torn open; not like a body of flesh, it is not painful as such, but like a peach and not even torn open, but too ripe and splitting open of its own accord. And inside the peach there’s a stone.
Atwood leaves tantalising hints throughout the book, giving us inkling on where she is planning to take it. The introduction of Mary Whitney (a la Daphne De Maurier’s Rebecca), the circumstances surrounding her death and its effect on Grace creates a kaleidoscopic groundwork for what transpired next.
By the end of the book, it is unclear whether Grace was suffering from Amnesia or was a cunning impostor. Her cool attitude after the double murders (she cleans up the house before dressing up in Nancy’s clothes) is complemented by her attitude when she is pardoned. In Grace’s words:
I was rescued, and now I must act like I was rescued. …It calls for a different arrangement of the face, but I suppose it will become easier with time.
It takes a seasoned writer to turn a simple story into a page-turner without introducing cheap-thrills. It takes a good researcher to weave Canada’s past into one of the most controversial murders seamlessly. Finally, it takes a skilled story-teller to create an unreliable protagonist, thus changing the outcome of the novel based on what one believes.

It is a long read, and not a very light one. However, the book is very absorbing and turns out to be engrossing purely because of Margaret Atwood’s writing finesse. 

1 comment:

antbrain said...

Can't agree more with the penultimate paragraph of this review, perfect! Apart from the countless positive reviews this book could/should have received, this one was certainly due. Great job!

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