Posted on 12 December 2012
Mary said I might be very young, and as ignorant as an egg, but I was bright as a new penny, and the difference between stupid and ignorant was that ignorant could learn. (172)
Certainly in the eight books by Margaret Atwood that I have read, there’s a consistent, drilling monotonous voice. I would describe it as a sharp, bitter tone, but would fail to point out exactly how it’s so. This often leads me to receive her books less favourably though I might think them brilliant. This time around I think I’ve finally put a finger on it. It’s that her sentences are seriously curt and abrupt. I don’t know how else to explain it except that there’re no shrill, high notes of excitement, even in scenes of outrage. There’s always the sober, solemn, heavy period, so exacting. No question marks, no exclamation points, no flying. (This is only a slight issue I have with her tone, otherwise she’s an excellent writer.)
But, about Alias Grace, it’s another fulfilling read. Historical fiction based on true events that happened in Richmond Hill, Ontario. Grace Marks, a sixteen-year-old servant girl, and her fellow servant James McDermott, were convicted of murdering their employer and his housekeeper in 1843. Atwood gives Grace a voice by allowing her to tell her personal story beginning from her childhood up until the crime, although Grace is an unreliable narrator and we never know if she’s lying or making things up. Most people were divided against whether Grace took a major role in the murder or whether she was only forced to be an accessory. In turn, Atwood makes the reader sympathetic towards her, but at the same time suspicious of her.
Alias Grace is a romance and a mystery and a searing character study. The story is tethered on the brink of great discoveries in the field of psychology. A certain psychologist, Dr. Jordan, is the one coaxing her voice out. This unlikely relationship between doctor and patient is at the core of it. From their encounters we are introduced to Grace’s harrowing childhood, losing her mother and her best friend both, a firsthand witness to their death at a tender age; overcoming hardships that children are not supposed to experience that early and without the moral support of a family.
Mrs. Burt kissed me goodbye, and wished me well, and despite her fat mottled face and her smell of smoked fish I was glad of it, because in this world you have to take your bits and ends of kindness where you can find them, as they do not grow on trees. (150)
I usually kept a firm enough grip on my feelings, yet there is something depressing to the spirits about a birthday, especially when alone; and I turned into the orchard, and sat down with my back against one of the big old stumps that were left over from the forest when it was cleared. The birds were singing around me, but I reflected that the very birds were strangers to me, for I did not even know their names; and that seemed to me the saddest of all, and the tears began to roll down my cheeks; and I did not dry them, but indulged myself in weeping for several minutes. (302)
I don’t know if the real Grace Marks was this lonely. What I know is that someone who was able to do something horrific as what she and McDermott did, in some or many ways, has pains deeper than they seem to convey and wanting much inner joy than they can ever hope to get.
Any murder in real life can seem unreal, like something that only happens in books, and here is proof that, indeed, reality is stranger than fiction.
When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else. (345-346)