Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Alias Grace

Alias Grace has been sitting on my shelf for a long time.  Even though I looooove Margaret Atwood, I was never able to get into it.  Also The Blind Assassin.  But, taste in books comes and goes, or so I've noticed, so, after a run of particularly great reads, I decided to give it another go.

It was like Margaret Atwood had just published another book, just for me.  I don't know what happened to me before, but I was absolutely mesmerized this time around.  It's based on the true story of convicted murderer (or, murderess, how shocking!) and Canadian, Grace Marks.  I did some research about her in advance, which I would recommend if you're going to read this book - only because so much of what Atwood includes is based on primary source materials.  You can, for example, read the confession and the trial notes online.

The story is told partly from Grace's point of view - she is in prison and asked to talk to a doctor, Simon Jordan (a fictionalized character) who is studying her case for criminal behavior.  This is in the late 19th century, when mysticism and seances and things like phrenology are actually considered fairly scientific, and the Freudian-style of the young doctor Jordan are considered slightly unusual.  Grace confesses not to have a memory of the murders she's alleged to have been involved with, but it's not entirely clear how trustworthy she is as a narrator.

I thought Alias Grace had a lot in common with The Handmaid's Tale, my benchmark of greatness for all books.  Grace is a lot like the handmaid, who is essentially jailed as well - restricted movements, at the mercy of those considered her betters.  Not surprisingly, there's a huge feminist aspect to this story - for example, much is made over the peculiarity of this female murderer.  What's interesting is that her inner monologue is steady, rational and completely reasonable.  Atwood even frames the story into sections titled with antique quilt patterns - Broken Dishes, Lady of the Lake, Tree of Paradise.  What could be more coded-female, or more perfectly rational? In comparison, the doctor's inner monologue becomes more and more shocking.  He casually fantasizes of injuring or doing violence to people he meets.  He has passing fancies of sexually humiliating practically every woman he meets, and yet he remains a pillar of society.

What's really quite amazing is how Atwood writes the entire book in the style of the late 19th century - no doubt about it, she is truly one of the greatest writers this world has ever known.  She writes:
They were feeble and ignorant creatures, although rich, and most of them could not light a fire if their toes were freezing off, because they didn't know how, and it was a wonder they could blow their own noses or wipe their own backsides, they were by their nature as useless as a prick on a priest - if you'll excuse me, Sir, but that was how she put it - and if they were to lose all their money tomorrow and be thrown out on the streets, they would not even be able to make a living by honest whoring, as they would not know which part was to go in where, and they would end up getting - I won't say the word - in the ear; and most of them did not know their own arse from a hole in the ground. And she said something else about the women, which was so coarse I will not repeat is, Sir, but it made us laugh very much.

Grace is manhandled daily by a couple of prison guards who describe at great length their intentions.  The descriptions are so filthy and so extenuated it's almost funny, and it kind of made me smile to imagine Atwood thinking of all the horrible, ridiculous, awful things these men could say.  Oh ho, says the one, that's what I like, a little high spirits in a woman, a little fire, they say it comes with the redness of the hair.  But is it red where is most counts, says the other, a fire in a treetop is no use at all, it must be a fireplace to cast enough heat, in a little cookstove, you know why God made women with skirts, it's so they can be pulled up over their heads and tied at the top, that way you don't get so much noise out of them, I hate a screeching slut, women should be born without mouths on them, the only thing of use in them is below the waist.

It's been about 30 years since Grace was accused of murder, when she was only a girl of 16.  Atwood explores the impact of imprisonment and the notion of forgiveness.  How can Grace pay for the crimes she may or may not have been party to? Through time, suffering, personal growth?  Near the end, Grace says, "It is not the culprits who need to be forgiven; rather it is the victims, because they are the ones who cause all the trouble. If they were only less weak and careless, and more foresightful, and if they would keep from blundering in difficulties, think of all the sorrow in the world that would be spared."  That odd statement is a good example of the kind of mystery that surrounds Grace until the end.  The wisdom she has was earned quietly observing the outside world through the bars of a prison.   "The way I understand things, the Bible may have been thought out by God, but it was written down by men.  And like everything men write down, such as the newspapers, they got the main story right but some of the details wrong."

No comments: