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Alias Grace.

Margaret Atwood needs no introduction to readers in the English-speaking world. She has been a major force and the pace-setting writer of Canlit for close to three decades now. Each new release is a publishing event. Having recently read the Giller-prize winning Alias Grace (1996), I can now claim to have read all of her novels. I'm a definite admirer of her work but not an uncritical one. While her novels are always imbued with intelligence, wit, and social significance, to my mind her finest achievements are generally her comic novels. Her wicked eye for the foibles of mankind (and I choose that word deliberately) is displayed to best effect in the context of comedy, where there exist formal constraints on any tendency toward didacticism and too-obvious moralizing.

I hasten to add that I believe Atwood has in her most recent outings created some of her most affecting work. Cat's Eye (1989), not a comedy, offers an insightful examination of the perils and power struggles of girlhood and the ways in which those crucial early days reverberate into adulthood. The Robber Bride (1993), is a sparkling comedy that explores the friendship of a group of women in contemporary Toronto and their bonding to heal the scars inflicted by their friend Zenia, the femme fatale to end all femme fatales.

Atwood has continued to grow as a writer while at the same time structuring most of her novels around the same basic pattern. In each novel, we encounter a female protagonist who at the outset is trapped or oppressed in some way. She is in danger of being victimized by someone with power over her--often a husband or lover but more recently a woman who has joined the class of oppressors. Philip Marchand has provided us with a hilarious, albeit somewhat unfair account of this basic pattern in his essay "Atwood's Heroines" from Ripostes: Reflections on Canadian Literature (1998). Marchand points out that the Atwood heroine always succeeds in becoming a "creative non-victim" according to the terms laid out by Survival (Atwood's well-known work of literary history/criticism). Marchand offers a typical sally as follows:

"The reader has no trouble identifying who this surrogate/heroine is. She's the only character Atwood writes about as if she weren't holding her up with a pair of tongs. In The Robber Bride, for example, the Atwood surrogate is the military historian, Antonia. Her lack of affectation, her mordant and unsentimental vision, her ability to perceive irony--as opposed to other characters, who are targets of irony--clearly qualifies her ..."

Marchand even goes so far as to offer up a chart outlining the basic pattern of the novels, emphasizing the way in which the leading male characters are portrayed as working in a field directly or indirectly connected to the arts. The work is invariably pretentious or hopelessly insignificant.

There is nothing particularly remiss in a writer working the same basic terrain in a series of novels, elaborating and extending her themes as she proceeds. Consideration of the Atwood pattern does nonetheless help to make clear what her strengths and weaknesses are. While Atwood does capture the pulse of contemporary Canadian society as few writers do, her range is limited. This is less significant an issue in her comic novels, where she rarely strains to make profound statements about the wilderness of contemporary society, than it is in her ostensibly more serious works, such as the overrated The Handmaid's Tale.

Alias Grace marks an interesting new development in Atwood's fiction. For the first time she offers us a historical novel, set in Victorian-age Canada. It may be noted that Atwood has long been fascinated by the "celebrated murderess" Grace Marks, and actually wrote a television play for the CBC in 1974 based on her life. As well, her ground-breaking poetry collection The Journals of Susanna Moodie explored the psyche of Moodie, who in turn wrote in detail about her encounters with Marks on prison visits.

Apparently the inspiration for the novel came while Atwood was meditating on this enigmatic woman from the past during a book tour. Our author had a sudden image of Marks in the cellar of the Ontario farmhouse that was the scene of a double murder in 1843. She extensively researched the murders and subsequent trials. In the novel, she endeavours to limit herself scrupulously to the facts where these are known. Fortunately this did not preclude her from imagining numerous events and characters where the historical record is silent.

Alias Grace is a highly successful excursion into Canadian history, particularly into the lives of the servant class in 19th century Ontario. The scenes of Grace and her family emigrating to Canada from Ireland on a precarious ship guaranteed to cause seasickness and illness are vivid. Grace's recounting of the death of her beloved mother is a harrowing harbinger of the struggles to come.

Grace has little choice but to leave her alcoholic father and eke out an existence as a domestic servant. The situation is not as bleak as it might appear, as she reveals a plucky avoidance of self-pity and is fortunate to encounter a housemaid named Mary Whitney. The two fast become bosom friends. This period indeed turns out to be the happiest of Grace's life. It ends with Mary's death at the hands of a backstreet abortionist and Grace's departure for a new establishment.

It is during her service to a free-spirited gentleman named Thomas Kinnear that Grace becomes enmeshed in the drama that is forever to mark her. It soon becomes evident that Kinnear is conducting a secretive affair with his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. A stable-hand, James McDermott, broods on what he considers his unfair treatment and develops an uncontrollable rage. Upon learning that he is to be dismissed, he springs into action. Nancy is strangled and Kinnear, upon his return from a business trip, is gunned down. There is little doubt about McDermott's responsibility for these dark deeds. The perplexing problem is the degree of culpability of Grace, who was the only other person present throughout this sequence of events.

This fateful drama is recounted primarily by Grace from Kingston Penitentiary 16 years later. She is interviewed by a vital, progressive doctor, Simon Jordan, who has been commissioned by a group of well-wishers to compile a report that it is hoped will assist in the drive to obtain a pardon for Grace. The relationship between Jordan and Grace and its impact on her recollections is initially handled with a fine touch by Atwood. It is no small feat to have achieved an assured and convincing tone for her working class heroine. Further, Jordan represents something of a breakthrough for Atwood, being her first truly sympathetic and apparently effective male character of importance.

Can it be, I wondered, that this male character will actually contribute to the protagonist's liberation (and one from a physical imprisonment at that)? Will the Atwood pattern be altered? Alas, it's not to be. Dr. Jordan proves rather ineffective as an interviewer. Although he gives Grace ample opportunity to recount her story, he fails to challenge her on the significant gaps that cry out for a better explanation. Some of the gaps arise from a mysterious memory loss concerning her involvement at the very moment of the murders. Jordan gradually relinquishes control of the situation, due in part to his romantic feelings for this mystery woman and in part to Grace's keen intelligence and survival instincts.

In the event, the conclusion is frustrating and unsatisfying. Jordan not only fails to probe Grace's account with skill and determination, he places himself in an untenable position by attending a Spiritualist seance. The seance reveals a startling insight into Grace's involvement if paranormal phenomena are to be believed. Further, the doctor is himself entangled in a rather tawdry sexual affair with Rebecca, his landlady, who hopes to leave the Major, her alcoholic husband. Jordan flees Kingston without writing his promised report. With what I find to be heavy-handed irony, he is injured while serving in the Civil War and suffers his own memory loss. Many years later -- in 1872 -- Grace finally obtains her pardon, but it certainly isn't with the assistance of her well-meaning admirer.

While the relationship between Grace and the most significant male character is problematic, Atwood's depiction of another key character, the lawyer Kenneth McKenzie, is a real delight. It is also ironic that it is this selfish, unattractive man (pear-shaped, with a pocked and tuberous nose) who actually accomplishes something on Grace's behalf. Disbelieving Grace's convoluted and unpersuasive accounts of her actions (she provided more than one), he persuades her to construct a more believable one. She is convicted by a jury of being an accessory before and after the fact in the murder of her employer Kinnear but is saved from hanging by a recommendation for mercy. A rather bleak moral might be derived from all this. It is the smug, somewhat disagreeable lawyer, possessing no faith at all in his client's innocence and not above making a pass at her, who proves helpful to her cause. Jordan, on the other hand, a man of culture and sophistication and possessing the greatest sympathy for Grace's plight, is blocked from providing any tangible assistance. It must be acknowledged that the bleakness is partly mitigated by the almost sprightly tone in which the concluding events are narrated but to my mind that only evades the issue.

There's more to be said about this novel and next issue I'll compare it with a Canadian classic, the late Anne Hebert's Kamouraska.
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Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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