Alias Grace. Margaret Atwood.

Atwood, Margaret. Alias Grace. Emblem paper, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 2010 (original edition 1996). F; 12/13.

Margaret Atwood is a justifiably famous Canadian author (this book won the Giller prize in 1996), but this is the first of her books I’ve read. I loved it, both the form and the content, and have the impression that Atwood’s own character isn’t the least important part of this semi-historic tale.

Grace Marks appears in Ireland as an older child in the later 19th century and travels with her family in the dreadful steerage of a ship, to Canada. The mother dies en route, and the father (a worthless drunk as contemporary society would have had it) abandons responsibility for Grace and her siblings, Grace escapes to learn the housekeeping trade, and ends up a servant for Thomas Kinnear, a wealthy man living north of Toronto. Kinnear and another household employee with whom he is having an affair are brutally murdered, and the stable boy James McDermott flees south to the US, taking teenage Grace with him. The two of them are arrested and tried for the murders, McDermott is executed, and Grace imprisoned for life.

While Grace is in prison a young psychiatrist, Dr. Simon Jordan, interviews her dozens of times to try to determine using late 19th-century psychiatric methods her guilt or innocence. Dr. Jordan, who is certainly interested in Grace as more than a patient and academic challenge, leaves the scene prematurely, but (PLOT ALERT) Grace’s prison sentence is ended while she is still middle-aged, and the prison warden and his family transport her to the US where she reunites with Jamie Walsh, a man of about her own age whom Grace met as a lovely young fellow while she was working for Kinnear, and we presume they live happily ever after (END PLOT ALERT).

I did a bit of peripheral reading to track down a few of the “facts” of the historic Grace Marks, and I think questions about her guilt or innocence still exist. Margaret Atwood creates using a combination of historic and fictional characters from these ambivalent circumstances a complicated resilient Grace both a woman of her era, and somebody who would have found her way around very well today.

Sex in Atwood’s story is never far away, always appropriately veiled in the contemporary style but always for the reader direct and convincing, especially from a male perspective. A Tennyson poem describing how his decomposed body (“dust under the ground”) would still desire his lover a hundred years after he was gone is quoted, and our pre-Freudian Dr. Jordan is rendered creeping into maids’ rooms in the wealthy home of his youth. Grace, hypnotized by a fabulous clown figure from her past now impersonating a health academic draws attention to the prim but obvious flirting with Simon of Lydia the prison governor’s daughter, during a climactic séance scene in a polite Toronto salon.

Contemporary spiritualism fills this scene and others. It’s clear that magical, visionary, and religiously ecstatic experience is consiedered avant-garde and possibly erotic, and also that it connects with Grace’s and our ambivalence about what was going through her mind, and physically taking place, during the murders.

Working-class conventional Grace presents herself as prim and capable, but she can’t escape feelings about her mother’s death and that of a friend who dies of a botched abortion of a fetus conceived by a rich dandy who viciously abandons her. Grace manages to deal with her pragmatic circumstances with, and to center herself in, brilliantly simple original wisdom. Hell and Paradise are located closer together than most people imagine, she tells us as narrator. Her alleged co-perpetrator McDermott had she says a voice “not so steady as his words.”  She echoes contemporary women’s (no doubt justified) suspicion of the motives of men which motives and suspicion might, Margaret Atwood seems to find, not have changed much since 1890.

For me the most satisfying thing about this book is that I think Margaret Atwood is in a sophisticated sense talking about herself. This is the real autobiography I remember Jonathan Franzen discussing in a Paris Review article (I think. I can’t find it now of course) emphatically not the type that tells the author’s life experiences as content, but the type made from his or her imagination.  I think he was saying one difference between good and bad literature is how real those imaginary experiences are.  By that measure I get the feeling Grace as imagined in this story: proper, driven by moral sentiment, potentially ecstatic, finally mysterious really is Margaret Atwood. 8.4/9.0

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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