Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 1, 2018

Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood

The stars aligned nicely when it was time for another title from 1001 Books and news came my way of a Margaret Atwood Reading Month at Consumed by Ink.  I have been meaning to read Alias Grace for ages…

By the time Alias Grace was published to great acclaim, Atwood had already written eight novels.  She has written so many now that Wikipedia groups them by decade, and Alias Grace sits with The Robber Bride in the 1990s as examples of novels in which female characters are deployed

to question good and evil and morality through their portrayal of female villains. As Atwood noted about The Robber Bride, “I’m not making a case for evil behavior, but unless you have some women characters portrayed as evil characters, you’re not playing with a full range.”  (Wikipedia, viewed 31/10/18)

Alias Grace also gets a mention at Wikipedia in the discussion about Atwood’s recurring themes.  At first glance, the story of a convicted 19th century murderess who might or might not have been guilty doesn’t seem to be relevant to Atwood’s theory of Canadian Identity that, she says, is characterised by the symbol of survival and its garrison mentality. However, it makes sense in the context of victims and their oppressors in Canadian Lit:

This symbol is expressed in the omnipresent use of “victim positions” in Canadian literature. These positions represent a scale of self-consciousness and self-actualization for the victim in the “victor/victim” relationship. The “victor” in these scenarios may be other humans, nature, the wilderness or other external and internal factors which oppress the victim. (Wikipedia, viewed 31/10/18)

What’s more, the form of Alias Grace—with its competing narrators; scraps of poetry and song; letters to and fro; and excerpts from newspaper reports and testimony—shows Atwood exploring the relation of history and narrative and the processes of creating history.  And Atwood explores that explicitly through a feminist lens as you’d expect.  (Mind you, Atwood is well known for rejecting the feminist tag, she calls her writing social realism.

Alias Grace despite its postmodern collage of voices and untrustworthy perspectives is very much like social realism.  It is grounded in Grace’s world of the penitentiary where she spends her days, the Governor’s residence where as a trusted prisoner she does the delicate needlework for which she is valued, and in her own narrative of a deprived life.  This story she tells to young and ambitious Dr Jordan, who hopes to make his name by recovering her lost memory of the murder and proving her innocence.  Grace’s tale reeks of authenticity: poverty at the hands of a drunken father in Ireland; her mother’s death at sea en route to the New World; and service in a grand house until—distraught about her friend’s death after a botched abortion and fearing advances from the man of the house who was responsible— she ends up in service to Mr Kennear at Richmond Hill where the fatal tragedy took place.  The sights, sounds and smells of underclass life—unseen by the oblivious genteel classes—are vividly rendered, all in Grace’s distinctive voice:

Before breakfast, there was a whipping, out in the courtyard; they do it before breakfast, as if those being beaten have eaten first, they are likely to spew up their food, and that makes a mess, as well as being a waste of good nourishment; and the keepers and guards say they like the exercise at that time of day, as it gives them an appetite. It was only a routine whipping, and nothing unusual, so we were not summoned to watch it; two or three only, and all of them men; the women do not get whipped so frequently. The first was young, by the tenor of his screaming; I can tell these things, having had a good deal of practice. I tried not to listen, and thought instead about the pig that was stolen by Tom the thief, and how it got eaten, but the song did not say who ate it, whether it was Tom himself, or those who caught him.  Set a thief to catch a thief, as Mary Whitney used to say.  I wondered, was it a dead pig to begin with?  Most likely not; most likely it had a rope around its neck or a ring through its nose, and was forced to run away with Tom. That would make the most sense, as it would save the carrying of it. In the whole song, the poor pig was the only one who did no wrong, but it was also the only one who died. Many songs, I have noticed, are unfair in this way.  (p. 277)

The tone is without self-pity, mildly sardonic, painfully authentic, and emblematic of the way Grace is able to block out horror by thinking of other things.  But—though Dr Jordan doesn’t recognise it at the time—this anecdote is also not only carefully manipulated: to keep his interest (so that she can continue to enjoy these breaks from her usual routine in the prison) and also to subtly lure him into linking the symbol of the pig forced to run away with the criminal and subsequently being the one to suffer most, with her own story of being forced into complicity with the crime committed by James McDermott.  There is also a hint that nourishment in this prison is not to be wasted; the reader already knows that the apple (with its Biblical associations) that Jordan brings on his first visit is the first one that she has had for a long time, though she doesn’t tell him that.  What the reader is privy to, in Grace’s narrative, is not just what she tells Dr Jordan, but also what she conceals for various reasons.  These reasons are not necessarily prejudicial to her innocence, (though there are hints that some might be).  Grace is a bit of a prude, and so—not just to protect her own reputation as a ‘god girl’— she sometimes spares Dr Jordan ‘indelicacies’ that she thinks he is too naïve or above her in social status to understand.  She also has superstitious beliefs about how expressing wishes means they won’t come true…

There is a great deal to think about in Alias Grace (the role of women, the barbarity of the mental health and penitential systems, the role of the sensationalist press in perceptions of guilt and the justice system, the question of whose story gets told &c) but I will focus on just one structural element that intrigued me.  The needlework that Grace does in her sessions with Dr Jordan is quilting, and each section of the book is prefaced by the name and an image of a traditional quilt design, such as Jagged edge, Fox and Geese or Tree of Paradise.  Now I know nothing about quilting except that my mother used to make beautiful patchwork quilts from the remnants of the clothes she made for us all.  But it was obvious that in Alias Grace these quilt designs had a specific symbolism…

Quilts are a woman’s craft, and, Grace says to Dr Jordan, they make the bed the most noticeable thing in a room.  They are also a form of communication between women and a warning:

You may think a bed a peaceful thing, Sir, and to you it may mean rest and comfort and a good night’s sleep. But it isn’t so for everyone; and there are many dangerous things that take place in a bed.  It is where we are born, and that is our first peril in life; and it is where women give birth, which is often their last. And it is where the act takes place between men and women that I will not mention to you, Sir, but I suppose you know what it is; and some call it love, and others despair, or else merely an indignity which they must suffer through. And finally beds are what we sleep in, and where we dream, and often where we die. (p.186)

There are certain designs which should be made by a girl before she marries, and others which testify to other life events.  Grace makes them for the flirtatious Governor’s daughter (who doesn’t have the requisite domestic skills that are supposed to be represented by her quilting) but she herself sleeps on a straw mattress, without a quilt, in a cell.  The absence of her own quilts in Grace’s life represents not just the wasted years of her reproductive life, but also the absence of home, family and hope.

I discovered an interesting site which amplified the symbolism of the quilts here but you can only read a bit of it because it’s one of those cheat sites for students, and also another at a quilting company site which refers to a Netflix series based on the book and actually shows the quilt designs.  (Obviously I must now buy the series on DVD but it’s not available yet here in Australia).  But even if you don’t have access to the proper designs online, the images in my Virago edition enable you to make connections, for example in the chapter called Broken Dishes, which is where irreparable damage is done to Grace’s life, and Secret Drawer where the hidden lives (and lies) of the servants are revealed.

Alias Grace is a brilliant book, which deserves its place (among five others by Atwood) in 1001 Books.  I don’t agree with their assessment of Grace’s voice as bitter because she seems resigned and resilient to me, but I do agree with this:

The author also reflects, in people’s reactions to Grace, the period’s ambiguity about the nature of women.  Some factions of society felt that women were weak and therefore that Grace must have been a victim who was forced into a desperate act.  Others believed that women were intrinsically more evil than men.  This dichotomy between the demonic and pathetic woman is subtly reflected in the character of Grace who, having spent time in a lunatic asylum, claims to have no memory at all of the murders. (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, ABC Books, Sydney, 2006, p. 851)

That pitch-perfect cover image is from Head of a Girl in a Green Dress (the artist and poet Elizabeth Siddal, beloved model of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) painted (1850-65) by her husband Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1828-82).

PS I wonder if Margaret Atwood would be amused by the hashtag for this Reading Month in her honour… its #MARM!

Author: Margaret Atwood
Title: Alias Grace
Publisher: Virago Press, 1997, first published 1996, 545pp.
ISBN: 9781860492594
Source: Loan from a friend, whose address has gone astray.  Helen D, if you’re reading this, I’d like to return your book, with sincere apologies for keeping it so long.


Responses

  1. I read the book so long ago, Lisa – I barely remember it. But it was maybe the second book by her that I read. I only very vaguely remember the quilt aspects, the little named designs, but I wouldn’t have remembered without your review. Thank you for mentioning it. I do remember it was a very good book!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I like her early books (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin, The Robber Bride) more than the later speculative fiction ones, but I’ve only read Oryx and Crake, so I can’t really be sure.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I read it a long time ago too, great to be reminded of what a powerful story it is. Thanks Lisa.

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      • Thanks, Carol, I like reading reviews of books I’ve read a while ago too: it’s a nice way to refresh the memory:)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Stephen Page.

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  3. What an excellent review Lisa. I feel as though I would appreciate this novel. I wasn’t a fan of the Handmaid’s Tale when I read it and that is the only Atwood novel I’ve read to date.

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    • With your love of historical fiction, I suspect that you would really enjoy it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t have Netflix so I haven’t seen the television adaptation of it which means I’ll be coming to the novel with only your review as my introduction. You have me convinced!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I often say this, and turn out to be wrong, but I don’t see how they can do it as a series and still retain the shifting POVs. For me that was part of the pleasure, trying to work out who was being shifty, or kidding themselves, or leading someone up the garden path…

          Liked by 1 person

          • This is where the written word can be so much more powerful than visual realisations. I will definitely read it before I seek out a way to watch it.

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  4. I read this when it came out and loved it. It, The handmaid’s take and The blind assassin are my favourites. I loved at the time that she wrote in so many different genres – I think my first of hers was more of a crime novel. (Bodily harm?? perhaps) So crime, contemporary fiction, historical fiction, dystopian fiction. Impressive.

    I have often thought I’d love to read this again.

    Many people love Cat’s eye, which I quite liked but not as much as these three. Same for The robber bride, which I also quite liked. I haven’t read those recent speculative fiction books though they languish on the TBR!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Such an excellent and thoughtful review, thanks so much for putting it together! I haven’t read any Atwood in a while and this is certainly a persuasive motivation. Alias Grace sounds like a rich, rewarding read! Curious which other books made it to the 1001 list (I’m guessing Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin made it, but I wonder which else. She has been very prolific).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, my edition of 1001 Books is the 2006, but this is what’s listed: Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, Cat’s Eye, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Robber Bride, and one I haven’t read, Surfacing.

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      • Surfacing was my first Atwood. It is a very different read from some of her others although narrator is also unreliable. My key memory of reading and teaching this with my IB class in Abu Dhabi is the poetic language. This was a challenging book for the students and to teach! As was Toni Morrison’s Beloved to the same class.

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        • Yes, I think Atwood would be difficult to teach, though an IB class would be many a secondary teacher’s dream…

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  6. Atwood’s range is pretty impressive, isn’t it? (While she’s not my favourite author, I do admire her breadth and skill.)

    I read this several years ago when a member of my old book group chose it as her pick for the month. While my memories of several of the details are somewhat sketchy now, I do recall it giving rise to a very meaty discussion, particularly around the public’s judgement of the protagonist. As you quite rightly say, it’s a very thought-provoking book.

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    • She had a great capacity for writing across a range of issues and forms of fiction. And like the best writers, she was able to engage discussion for book groups and other forums.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This was my first Atwood but it was such a long time ago I barely remember the story, so thank you for the refresher 😉 I do remember liking it a lot and wanting to read more by her but then I also remember how much she annoyed KevinfromCanada because he thought she often stole the limelight from other Canadian authors and monopolised CanLit. He probably had a point, but perhaps she also put Canadian literature on the world stage…

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    • Yes, I remember that he had a particular dislike for her speculative fiction, but (much as I liked Kevin) I don’t think any writer can be accused of stealing the limelight just because they are successful…

      Liked by 2 people

      • Well, I’m paraphrasing… I think his point was that people couldn’t see beyond Atwood to the great riches of Canadian fiction waiting to be discovered…

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        • Ah, yes, I think you’re right. Like people who think that Peter Carey represents Australian fiction when it is so much more than that!

          Liked by 1 person

  8. Great review Lisa. Like others, I don’t remember all the details but do remember that I thought this was one of Atwood’s best. I do need to try to join in with this marvellous reading month!

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  9. GREAT REVIEW LISA, BOOK LOOKS GOOD TOO, CHINA

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Reblogged this on LIVING THE DREAM and commented:
    ONE OF THE BEST BOOK REVIEWERS, CHINA

    Liked by 1 person

  11. YOU DESERVE IT LISA, CHINA

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  12. This is probably my favourite of her books, and I’m so glad you liked it (and wrote such a wonderful and informative review about it)!
    I think one of the things I like best about it is the tone. I find all Grace’s thoughts and interactions both amusing and fascinating. She’s clearly smart, yet, as you say, she keeps things to herself thinking no one else wants (or should) hear about it.
    I just think that everything about this book is brilliant.
    I have always wanted to know the real story, which, of course, we never will.

    Thanks for taking part in #MARM, Lisa!

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    • Thanks for organising #MARM, Naomi. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes up during the rest of the month:)

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Just put it in CD player. 15 hrs! Comment tomorrow.

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    • Yup, it’s a long book, I forgot to tag i as a chunkster, I will do that now…

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  14. I think Atwood is an admirable and sometimes (mildly) experimental author, but I didn’t think Alias Grace was much more than just standard historical fiction, in fact if she was trying to make a point then I didn’t see it. I did learn stuff about Canada of which I was completely unaware – the capital of Canada is more or less inland of New York; and that there were Irish, Republican rebellions, in 1837 and 1867 (I think). I found the use of two povs, interviewer and interviewee, fairly standard, but interesting. My only complaint was the ignorance of the reader who had a beautiful voice, but was unfamiliar with far too many words (saying wayne-lay for wanly for instance) and of course the egregious ‘mischevious’.

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    • I thought that Grace was a kind of Scheherezade, telling her tale to a man of power, not exactly to prolong her life because her sentence was commuted, but to prolong a bit of pleasure in her life and to change the way the man of power thought about things, just like Scheherezade did.
      So I loved it:)

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  15. I’d saved this in a tab to spend time with your review and then lost track of my tabs in an unexpected Windows update, so I’m late getting back to your thoughts on this, one of my favourites! What a terrific job you’ve done getting to some of the deep layering (stitching!) that she’s done in this novel. It’s just wickedly smart and insightful. challenging and engaging. I love it. (The quilts: yes!) “What the reader is privy to, in Grace’s narrative, is not just what she tells Dr Jordan, but also what she conceals for various reasons.” This is something that the film version (i’ve only seen the first episode though, so far) handles brilliantly because you can see, in literally a second or two, an image which contradicts something that she is speaking, but the words she’s saying are technically true, at the same time – so I think Sarah Polley has brought out these complexities on film in a way which I don’t think (m)any other filmmakers/producers could achieve. So I hope you do enjoy the film when you get to it. (Also, yes, we hope she’s giggling about “MARM” too. She does have a great appreciation of irony, so hopefully giggling!) Thanks for reading along and also congrats on the additional check-mark on your 1001 project!

    Like

    • Don’t you hate it when Windows does that! I keep tabs open for that reason too: I open all the links in the emails about new posts, and then delete the emails to give my inbox a chance to breathe. But then if I get distracted and my laptop goes into Sleep mode, it doesn’t always let me get them back when I wake it up.
      Anyway, I am looking forward to the series, I’m sure we’ll get it here eventually. (It’s already here for people who have Netflix, but we don’t watch enough TV to be bothered subscribing to anything. I prefer to wait and watch these programs ad-free).
      I thought the TV series of The Handmaid’s Tale was quite good for Series 1 but much less so for series 2. Very heavy-handed, I thought.

      Like


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