Out of the gravel there are peonies growing.
–Margaret Atwood - Alias Grace - c.1996
On my reread I think I enjoyed this just as much, if not more, than the first time around. Fifteen years have passed since I first read the book, so I had forgotten much of the detail but the I remembered the atmosphere of the book, and the wonderful writing.
This time around I thought much more about Grace herself as a character, and the questions that Atwood raises about her. Is she telling the truth to Dr. Jordan? How could she possibly remember so much detail, so is it that life in a cell is dull and monotonous and any outsider is worth keeping around for entertainment if nothing else. Of course she must wish to get him on her side, in the hopes that he will help with her appeals for clemency or even a pardon.
And if she is telling the truth how then do you interpret her story? Did she have a mental break? Or is it possibly a ghost story that Atwood is telling to us?
Just as with the first read I really loved all those details, Grace had such a hard life and her description of her working day should be enough to put anyone off wishing a return to “better times”, because really they were a lot worse than the majority of us in the first world experience.
It is a book that really makes me remember why I read so many Atwood books, I have to say that her more recent ones haven’t appealed to me when I’ve read them, but maybe I need to go back and read her older books.
First read in March 2003 with Historical Favorites
Based on the true story of Grace Marks, an infamous murderer in Canada in the 1840’s, Atwood’s book uses different narrators to tell the story, as well as interspersing the story with extracts from other works. From poems, fiction, newspapers of the time, and other sources. Although this is based on the real story, Atwood has, of course, fictionalised a great deal of the novel.
The two narrators are Grace herself, who tells her story in the first person, past tense, and Simon Jordan, the doctor investigating her claims of insanity or innocence. His parts are told by a third person narrator, and are in the present tense.
These shifts in perspective, combined with the extracts, give a wider sense of the story, as well as letting us get to know the characters, and not just from their own viewpoint. the also allow us to see how each truly views the other:
although like most gentlemen he often wants a thing to mean more than it does”
Grace herself comes across as a very self-contained woman, calm and prudish. She has been in prison and the asylum for many years, so maybe it is not surprising that she be slightly strange. But despite that fact that she tells her own story we are never given one truth. Grace herself doesn’t seem to know what happened, but is this true, or is she just fooling herself?
and she said I was a treasure and she hoped they would never let me out of prison, as she would like me always to be there to help her with her dresses- Which I suppose was a compliment of a sort
Simon is an almost perfect example of the outward respectability of life in the 1800’s, while his wandering thoughts allow us glimpses of darker thoughts.
This is a very readable, enjoyable book. Atwoods gives us some very descriptive passages eg Grace’s journey as a child traveling from Ireland to Canada. And these balance the slightly unknowable reality that lies behind the story.
Behind it is the graveyard, neat and green, the dead kept under firm control. No rambling weeds here, no tattered wreaths, no jumble and confusion; nothing like the baroque efflorescences of Europe. No angels, no Calvaries, no nonsense. heaven, for the Presbyterians, must resemble a banking establishment, with each soul tagged and docketed and placed in the appropriate pigeonhole.
It is always a mistake to curse back openly at those who are stronger than you unless there is a fence between
because once the horse was out of the stable it was no good shutting the barn door, and a woman once on her back was like a turtle in the same plight, she could scarcely turn herself right side up again, and was fair game for all”
The truth is that very few understand the truth about forgiveness. It is not the culprits who need to be forgiven; rather it is the victims, because they are the ones who cause all the trouble. If they were only less weak and careless, and more foresightful, and if they would keep from blunderinf into difficulties think of all the sorrow in the world that would be spared