Partners in Crime
- Margaret Atwood (Author)
Alias Grace. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Aritha van Herk
Quilting is an art that pulls together pieces of the past into a cover promising a warm future, and Atwood’s employment of the quilt of experience as visual and textual metaphor for Alias Grace is wrought with a fine stitch and a deliberate hand. That inherent notion of recyclable piecework functions as an persuasive riposte to those who contend that Atwood should shun history, or that history is a territory for which her writing is not suited. Like Grace Marks, the Grace of the novel’s title,
Atwood knows that a story depends on its teller and its listener more than its narrative content or setting, that control and design together create a field. And Atwood knows that the celebrated murderess, Grace Marks, is a superb set of patches from which to piece a quilt and quell contentious territorial histories.
Alias Grace speaks eloquently for Atwood’s writing as chronicle of both past and future, a barometer of time and its testings. Of all the textual challenges that Atwood has risen to, this historiographie intervention takes on the syntax of the past in a brilliantly decisive way. Although decisive might appear to be the wrong evaluative phrase to employ, for this novel does not provide the reader with particular answers, either to the question of Grace Marks’s innocence or guilt, or to the question of the presence of such murders in their own and in our time, Atwood convinces the reader that the story she relates is about listening and hearing, about the complex stitching of circumstances not always visible to the naked eye, not always plausible or clearly delineated. "Pick any strand and snip, and history comes unravelled," says the historian Tony in The Robber Bride. In Alias Grace, stitching and unravelling occur simultaneously, offering a wonderfully immediate sense of the purely arbitrary nature of history and its recordings. "Just because a thing has been written down ... does not mean it is God’s truth," says Grace, a subtle hint to those who would seek a historical re-version or revision in this fiction.
As she has already demonstrated so often, Atwood’s greatest writing skill is in her employment of narrative voice, the instrument by which a story is made public. Grace Marks tells her story to a fascinated (and distinctly prurient) listener, Dr. Jordan, who aims to make his reputation as a psychological healer on her case. Resonant of the enigmatic Offred’s story in The Handmaid’s Tale, Grace’s version is pragmatic and perceptive, aware of politics and the duplicities of manners, subtle and fascinating in its focus on tangible detail, but exercising also a silent double-text, an intricate awareness of what she should not and cannot say. In her telling, we readers are made privy to Grace’s private construction of her story. And Atwood’s rendering of Grace’s construction is complex and brilliant, powerfully effective.
For all that she is the object of so much scrutiny (on the part of doctors and keepers, other inmates and the general public), Grace is herself a subtle snoop, "skilled at overhearing," and wary of the readings that others impose on her. It is difficult to be a "celebrated murderess," to live up to the expectations of those who want to peer and pry, of those who want to smell the blood of an acrid past. Grace is watchful, not quite skittish, more concerned with exercising a day-to-day caution that enables her to enjoy the small liberties she is permitted than with the larger concealment of her infamous crime. Grace’s bargain with recovery becomes a poignant counterpoint to concealment, to necessity, to guilt and innocence and their configured articulations. Even more important, Grace’s amnesia reiterates that events are inflected by more than memory, itself a construction, a fiction, a quilt.
Alias Grace invades the inaccuracies of confession, its narrative drive the promise of absolution. Both confessor and listener are subject to Grace Marks’s pragmatism, what can only be seen as a down-to-earth perusal of inescapable events. Like the vegetables that Dr. Jordan tries to use as instruments to awaken her memory, Grace’s remembrance and forgetting are driven by survival, by sturdy realism in a world which wants to sink its teeth into fantasy. An apple or potato are solid, plausible objects with which to interrogate a murderess. But Grace’s reading of them simulates her way of dealing with the disappointments of life. Throughout, she speaks the nostrums of her time, employing various saws and sayings—"necessity makes strange bedfellows," "kind words butter no parsnips"—using vegetable chores to counterbalance the extremities of her reputation. "Things do have a design if you only ponder them long enough," Grace claims. Lessons are available everywhere—in a parsnip, in a quilt pattern.
Alias Grace effectively sets out to test the limits of listening and hearing. For Grace’s story to take shape, it requires a listener, and Dr. Jordan is only too eager to provide Grace with ears, his undivided attention. Gentle and empathetic as he appears to be, the doctor figures as listener, collector, invader, voyeur to Grace’s story. "If I am to listen to you, you will have to talk to me," he asserts, but Grace is well aware that his offer is contingent, that there are other desires hidden beneath his desire to "help" her. The novel’s premise, then, of a criminal Grace telling her story to an avuncular doctor, becomes a quilt that represents the dearth of listeners in a world of noise, of imagined perception, of black and white, of truth and its inscrutable permutations, of women as dangerous quilts, the fine stitching hiding a secret and subversive signature.
In eliciting Grace’s story, it become clear that Dr. Jordan sees himself as combined confessor and conjurer, a man who knows how tricks are performed. But Jordan has not much practice; he is prone to deafness, has not learnt to read lips or to listen to subtleties, and he is upstaged by a more powerful (and certainly less inhibited) conjurer, one for whom mesmerism is not a game but a means of survival. Placing the mesmerism scene so squarely in the position of solution, and then refusing to "solve" the question of Grace’s involvement with the murder, Atwood manages one of the most brilliant narrative sleights of hand possible. At the same time, that pivotal moment in the novel reminds the reader that it does not do to trust any story too much, that every inquisitive reader is prurient.
Above all, the novel makes clear that readers need to take responsibility for their own voyeurism, for a pan-Victorian tendency to lick lips and to believe all the contradictory things that are said about Grace. Grace knows herself as a romantic figure on the basis of the elision between her as murderess and paramour. Sex and death are a stylish combination, a confection that no self-respecting pornographer can resist. And Grace personifies the public’s ongoing macabre fascination with death; in any story, "the ladies must have blood, there is nothing delights them so much as a weltering corpse." Coming from the mouth of Thomas Kinnear (the man Grace allegedly murders), this statement can be read as mere irony, but in the larger context of Alias Grace itself, takes on a more sinister contemporary application. The reader, then or now, pants after the story of a celebrated murderess, and wants even more to hear the details of her seduction. That desire reveals every reader’s susceptibility to mesmerism, as we are mesmerized along with Grace, by Grace, by the whole sad story, an alias reader cast in the role of salivating voyeur.
With Grace, Atwood continues to test her long expressed interest in the configurations of madness, its seductions and designations, its companion role to women. Grace inhabiting another’s body acts as a metaphor for how such experience can be shared. Within the steamy and over-dressed parlours of the mid-ninteenth century, the notion of women’s volition becomes fraught with the genteel odour of laudanum and the circumscribed lives available. Alias Grace is an effective disquisition on the few choices possible for laundresses and housemaids, prostitutes and wives and landladies. Again, Atwood’s touch is deft, slicing so thinly that the oblivious reader will hardly be aware that s/he is being offered a sharp lesson in the daily difficulties of women’s lives, especially women without the advantages of husbands or money. More than any other Canadian writer, Atwood manages to work with social details, employing the daily aspects of history in a way that is superlatively informative, but without ever resorting to dictatorial teaching. The milieu that the novel enters is complete in its tiny stitchings, its very atmosphere breathing from the novel’s patches.
The lesson of Alias Grace is embedded in the ongoing attraction/repulsion of the "criminal" woman. Everyone is afraid of Grace because a woman like her is a temptation. In that small acknowledgment, the reader must pinpoint her own wariness and interest. The temptation of such a character to both writer and reader, of which there are so many versions in this novel (whether doctor/listener/governor’s wife, or the rabble milling about and eager to witness a hanging), is undeniable; that erotic fear makes readers resist the historical suspicion of this story, for it clairvoyants the present time and present readers, whose own fascination with death and dying is only too morbidly inescapable.
Like every Atwood fiction, Alias Grace does not let its audience off the hook. Being a "celebrated murderess" is much like being a celebrated novelist/poet/writer, and weak readers peer at Atwood in much the same way that Dr. Jordan listens to Grace, with half an ear, waiting for the juicy bits. Who is the real voice speaking here? A mesmeric hypnotist? Who is the authority? Who writes the story? Is a contemporary audience as much to blame for the grisly fall of the axe as any murderer, simply by entertaining its telling? Alias Grace persuades us that the watcher and the watched are mutually responsible, and those sitting in judgment should be careful of their presence at the scene of the crime.
- The Dragon and the Emporium by Maria Noëlle Ng
Books reviewed: Kowloon Tong by Paul Theroux, Transporting the Emporium: Hong Kong Art & Writing Through the Ends of Time by Scott McFarlane, and Images of Asian American Women by Asian American Women Writers by Esther Mikyung Ghymn
- Survival of the Courageous by Jennifer Fraser
Books reviewed: Consumption by Kevin Patterson and God of the Plains by Gail Robinson
- The Art of Artifice by Andrew Lesk
Books reviewed: Delirium by Douglas Cooper, Beneath that Starry Place by Terry Jordan, and Angel Falls by Tim Wynveen
- Storying Northern History by Sherrill Grace
Books reviewed: The Ice Master: A Novel of the Arctic by James Houston, Trapped in Ice by Eric Walters, and The Man From the Creeks by Robert Kroetsch
- Romantic Colonies by Miranda Burgess
Books reviewed: Bardic Nationalism by Katie Trumpener and Romanticism, Race, and Imperial Culture, 1780-1835 by Sonia Hofkosh and Alan Richardson
MLA: van Herk, Aritha. Partners in Crime. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #156 (Spring 1998). (pg. 110 - 113)
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