Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (1996) Anchor (1997) 468 pp
I always have a good time while I’m reading a Margaret Atwood novel, but up to now only The Handmaid’s Tale sticks with me as an incredible novel, one which should be read. I had high hopes for Alias Grace since it is based on a true story and Atwood takes us back to the 1850s this time rather than into the ugly future. In fact, I had been holding off on reading it, almost as a treat. It only left me somewhat satisfied.
Once again, while reading Atwood, I was pulled into the story quickly. Her prose is smooth, with few stumbling blocks (more on the stumbling blocks later). The story contains an exciting premise, has conversational characters, and is incredibly clever. But in the end, I was disappointed. Doesn’t that always happen, though, when you expect a lot?
Alias Grace starts out with Grace already in prison. A decade and a half earlier she was involved in the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. James McDermott, a disgruntled employee, was hanged for the crime. While Grace was sentenced to the same fate, her lawyer cleverly pleaded her sentence down due to insanity.
Cleverly? Well, maybe it was the simple truth. After all, Grace has exhibited some peculiar behavior, and she says she doesn’t remember anything. Or is she really innocent, just a victim of circumstances (which just happend to be controlled by single-minded men).
Onto the scene comes Simon Jordan, a doctor who wants to help Grace remember. His motives are not pure — he wants to get his place in the science books. Exonerating Grace is incidental, though he does begin to feel a strange attraction to Grace . . . but that and many more “improper” attractions are part of the subcurrent. Those men are all after one thing! Thankfully some of them have the capacity to exercise self-control in the presence of such a temptress. (Yes, sometimes it got a little heavy-handed — but it is important, and I’m glad Atwood is skilled enough to present this issue in her books without sounding bitter and pedantic (most of the time)).
Atwood builds suspense by inserting passages from newspaper articles and from the actual confessions, and these seem to contradict not only what Grace says but also the pleasant, innocent (though no longer naïve) ethos she builds while telling her story. Knowing that Atwood usually has a clever way of reconciling seeming contradictions, I was pulled along by more than the smooth prose.
Then again, sometimes the prose actually got in the way. Most of the time, Atwood is very insightful and sly, and she injects this into her prose frequently in pleasing ways:
Once you start feeling sorry for yourself they’ve got you where they want you. Then they send for the Chaplain.
Oh come to my arms, poor wandering soul. There is more joy in Heaven over the one lost lamb. Ease your troubled mind. Kneel at my feet. Wring your hands in anguish. Describe how conscience tortures you day and night, and how the eyes of your victims follow you around the room, burning like red-hot coals. Shed tears of remorse. Confess, confess. Let me forgive and pity. Let me get up a Petition for you. Tell me all.
And then what did he do? Oh shocking. And then what?
The left hand or the right?
How far up, exactly?
Show me where.
But too often she draws attention to her wit by ending a paragraph with a short sentence that often begins with something like “And.” It’s not always bad to draw such attention to wit, but after so many snappy punches, I start to flinch.
So would I have liked Alias Grace if I hadn’t built it up in my mind? Who can say? I think I would have felt much the same as I do now. There were some parts where I got a bit tired of Grace’s story. Fifteen years in prison, and she still remembers everything but the murders. Sure, that makes her story all the more suspect, and there are interesting issues there, but at times it was anticlimactic.