Paul Bryant's Reviews > Alias Grace

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
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Jul 07, 09

bookshelves: modernvictorian, novels
Read in July, 2009

At the very heart of certain narratives is a lacuna, to which the reader is drawn ineluctibly, as the centre of a whirlpool of meanings. It may indicate something essentially unknowable, ineffable - the lacuna in the Old Testament is when God tells Moses I AM THAT I AM, which lets us know in no uncertain terms that this thing is not of logic or language, whatever it may be; the lacuna of the New Testament is Christ's three days in the tomb - we are not told anything about that, it is unknowable. Or this gap in the story may indicate simply something someone does not wish to tell us - the very heart of the matter, the thing of shame, the motive. Here the gap is a void or avoidance. Psychologically powerful avoidance fuelled by intense guilt makes a hair-raising narrative, as the reader, writer and protagonist gradually converge together and find themselves in the belly of the beast - two memorable examples from non-fiction are Fritz Stangl's horrible wrestling with his past as commandant of Treblinka in Gitta Sereney's series of interviews with him ("Into that Darkness") and Michaud & Aynesbury's interviews with Ted Bundy ("Conversations with a Killer"). In both cases we are caught up in the subtle and confrontational stratagems the interviewers use to get the monster to acknowledge an identification with the previous self who committed the atrocities. Stangl ferociously hangs on to the "it was just a job, a really really difficult job" line until he cracks - and how dramatic to read that a day or so after he finally - finally - admits that he was personally responsible for what he had done, he dies of a heart attack. Bundy constructs a way of describing his crimes by "speculating" about them in the third person, contemplating how the person who perpetrated them "might have been" feeling, of how he "was reacting inappropriately to stress in his life". He edges to the very rim of acceptance of guilt but can't manage the swan-dive into what we non-serial killers assume to be the cleansing waters of catharsis which await those who accept their crimes and seek atonement.
Alias Grace's story likewise is a stately sarabande of 550 pages around the central question - did she do it? Suspended from that mystery, the ponderous but pillowy narrative describes the life of Grace Marks in her own languid hyper-observational manner (a great fictional voice) and counterposes this with the fervid cavortings of the brain doctor sent to ferret out her great secret. He's quite a scream.
So anyway, this book is squarely in that genre I call Modern Victorian, in which the contemporary novelist writes us another great big Victorian story but being modern can put in all the filth and flesh, all the naming of parts which the real Victorian novelists couldn't do. It turns out, from what I've read so far, to be a great idea. Consider these -

1) The Crimson Petal and the White (Michel Faber) - completely brilliant and nearly 1000 pages too

2) The Quincunx (Charles Palliser) - completely brilliant and just over 1000 pages

3) Fingersmith (Sarah Waters) - yes, just about completely brilliant too

4) The French Lieutenant's Woman (John Fowles) - acknowledged by all to be fairly brilliant

Very glad to add Alias Grace to this select list and will be happy to grab up other Modern Victorians as they swim my way.

Alias Grace likes, in its modern way, to leave a lot of stuff unanswered and without chucking in a huge horrid spoiler here, I can't reveal why I think that part of the Central Revelatory Scene was pure codswallop, but that didn't make no never mind. Margaret Atwood's big book sails onward, sad, sumptuous, and very slightly sexy too.
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Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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Paul Bryant So far so good, it's another "Modern Victorian" as I call them (I have a small shelf of them), and I just found out Job's Tears was a quilt pattern (also the puzzling name of a song I especially like, puzzle now solved).


message 2: by C. (new) - rated it 5 stars

C. My favourite Modern Victorian is and will always be Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel. Until I get tired of it and some other book takes its place, that is. Nice review!


Jamie Quite a good review! This is one of my favorites by Atwood--and I have to say, trying hard not to be spoiler-y, when you mention the "Big Revelatory Scene"--do you mean the seance? (I don't think this spoils too much.) Because I think even that is incredibly ambiguous, and by the end of the novel, we're ultimately in the dark as to Grace Marks' "real" character/interior/history, whathaveyou. It's one of the things I love best about Atwood, actually--that often infuriating ambiguity, and I think Alias Grace is perhaps one of the best examples among her work of that sort of brilliance.


Moira Russell Wow, great review!


Paul Bryant Elizabeth - you must check out my review of Possession - I didn't care for it so much! Choupette - J Strange is about "magic" as I understand and as a dedicated foe of all the spooky-ookums in the world I fear that this one would not quite be my cup of instant soup.
Jamie - the Big revelatory Scene is indeed the seance and alas, I don't think it's that ambiguous. so buried in this little comment here's a BIG FAT SPOILER - LOOOK AWAY NOWWWW!!!!!! - Atwood is - it seems - allowing the "explanation" of Grace's amnesia to be that she was suffering from multiple personality disorder. At least, this is the theory one character puts forward, and it isn't contradicted. So for me that was a major downer. Strangely enough, even though so apparently crucial, this wrong note didn't impair my thorough enjoyment of the whole symphony.


Paul Bryant Yes true, but I don't think Possession counts, because it's half set in present times and flashes back a lot. I know it's harsh but those are the rules.


message 7: by Tara (new)

Tara Lovely review. I have only read Handmaid's Tale and I'm not too familiar with this title. Yay for filth and flesh when executed well!

Also, have Fingersmith at home and totally forgot I recently bought it. I will definitely have to start that soon.


Tara Tara wrote: "Lovely review. I have only read Handmaid's Tale and I'm not too familiar with this title. Yay for filth and flesh when executed well!

Also, have Fingersmith at home and totally forgot I recently..."


Hi Tara,
This one by Atwood is great--I liked it more than the Handmaid's Tale and that book I liked very much. Fingersmith is my favorite book of all time. Next to Jane Eyre. I read it about 3 years ago and still have not found a novel to beat it (Fingersmith). Happy reading!



Paul Bryant Fingersmith - great book - but have you seen the BBC dramatisation of Tipping the Velvet? For any Sarah Waters fan this is a total must and for non-Sarah Waters fans its also, yes, a total must...


message 10: by Tara (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tara Paul wrote: "Fingersmith - great book - but have you seen the BBC dramatisation of Tipping the Velvet? For any Sarah Waters fan this is a total must and for non-Sarah Waters fans its also, yes, a total must..."

I haven't thank you for suggesting this! It wasn't my favorite Sarah Waters novel, but she's a great writer, I'll definitely check it out :)




message 11: by Georgia (new)

Georgia To coin Manny's phrase, it's too sexy for maiden aunts! I didn't read the book because the dramatisation was so perfect.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0324264/



message 12: by C. (new) - rated it 5 stars

C. I can't remember the last time I posted a comment on goodreads, but I just can't resist - I just finished re-reading this and it was far better than I remembered, just brilliant. But (BIG SPOILER ALERT)...................

I do think that the seance scene remains ambiguous - there were more than a few hints, weren't there, that Jeremiah prepped Grace beforehand and that she might have been acting the whole thing, weren't there? It seemed that way to me.

Now to retreat back into hibernation. Good day!


message 13: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Bryant good day, happy Xbox, and whatnot - nice to see you back.


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