Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

When Margaret Atwood is firing on all cylinders, there are few who can touch her. Her sense of language, of character, of prose so sharp it could bite you, it's all astounding. At the same time, when she misses, it's disappointing. So I approach every book of hers in a state of apprehension - is this going to be as amazing as The Robber Bride, or as disappointing as The Blind Assassin?

Alias Grace, as it turns out, is somewhere in the middle. The prose is understandably flattened, given that she's writing from the perspective of two people, neither of whom are gifted with poetic gifts. The characters, though, are extremely interesting. The story is great. The ending disappoints. So really, it's somewhere in the middle.

I'll work through that, piece by piece. The book itself is based on the real-life story from 19th century Ontario of Grace Marks, a young maid who was accused of helping or masterminding the killing of the man she worked for and his housekeeper, with whom her employer was allegedly having an affair. Was she an innocent swept along by an evil man? The devious voice behind the whole thing? Somewhere in the middle? Her sentence was commuted and she spent most of her life in prison.

This book is about a young man trying to make a name for himself in the field of treating madness, hoping to develop new techniques on which to build an asylum which he will then run. Credentials are a much looser thing at this time period. He comes to Kingston. (I'm from Kingston, so I always get a little excited when my city appears in a book.) At the penitentiary, he gets permission to interview Grace Marks, and he hopes to be able to help her recover memories she is alleged to have lost.

The strength of the book is that you're never quite sure how honest Grace is being. She parcels out her story in small chunks, trying to please him and keep him coming back, while carefully guarding herself. This tension is well done, with her thoughts forming much of the book, while the doctor's point of view comes through in letters, and some first-person narrative. I think it was first person - it's been a couple of weeks since I read this.

As I said, having Grace be the narrator for much of the book flattens out Atwood's prose, but it works well for the story that is being told. Of course, she's fascinating, and that sense of not quite knowing how much you can trust her is subtle and well done.

Which is why the end of the book is disappointing. We're given a definitive answer, and it's a medical diagnosis. It's not a medical diagnosis the doctor in the book would have recognized, but it is one that in the late twentieth century, people would be familiar with. That was so frustrating. It takes this character and squishes her into a two-dimensional medicalization. I would have been happier with never getting a definitive answer, leaving her a question mark. And because it's a diagnosis that we would recognize and the doctors then would not, it leaves the book distancing the 19th century as those people who wouldn't recognize something perfectly evident if it jumped up and bit them.

It's a gotcha moment in a book that is not crying out for one.

So, yeah. It's not her best, but it's not her worst. I think there'll be a lot to talk about when this comes up in my book club in a few months!

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