Atwood's 'Grace': extrapolated herstory


"Alias Grace," by Margaret Atwood. Doubleday. 468 pages. $24.95

Margaret Atwood, the celebrated Canadian writer, is at it again. In her latest novel, "Alias Grace," Atwood mixes her usual blend of feminism and literature, but this time she adds some history. It is a work of fiction based on actual events in mid-19th century Canada. The novel centers on the shoddily recorded story of Grace Marks, a young female servant accused of murder, sentenced to life in prison, and eventually pardoned.

Those interested in immigrant/pioneer life in Canada will be very pleased with this novel. But Alias Grace is not history. It is an extrapolation of events by a very famous author - one whose fame will rely on previous accomplishments.

In the pretentious "Reader's Companion to Alias Grace," Atwood explains her approach to this story: "In gaps left unfilled, I was free to invent." Yes, Atwood certainly fills the historical gaps, but she does so without the flair of invention. The slow stale language that Atwood forces upon Grace, the primary narrator, makes the novel a supreme disappointment.

Grace has occasion to use her deadening voice at length during several visits with a doctor studying her supposed insanity. Feeling sorry for the troubled doctor, who is involved in an inconsequential subplot, Grace tries to please him by detailing her life and travels. The reader is therefore subjected to an eye-glazing account of family politics back in Ireland, the passage from Ireland to Canada, and the hardships of immigrant life.

Atwood does allow some characters a bit of verve. Jeremiah the Peddler and Mary Whitney, Grace's crass confidante, are both quite amusing. Even so, vibrant personalities are dulled when Grace tells of them in her choppy stream of consciousness. This sad language may be appropriate; Grace, after all, is in prison. But it makes for laborious reading.

What's worse, after enduring Grace's miserable tales, we get no reward. We never find out if she was really a cold-blooded killer or an unwilling accomplice. Grace doesn't escape from prison. No hidden evidence is revealed. Atwood musters a phony hypnotism of Grace, but it has no effect on her prison sentence. She is granted a release from prison on account of her good behavior and a few letters on her behalf.

"Shawshank Redemption," this is not.

Atwood fails stylistically with "Alias Grace." But she does paint a decent portrait of life before indoor plumbing, justice and feminism. Alias Grace is peppered with details of personal hygiene in the good ol' days. The story is based on a mockery of justice and the inhumanity of prejudice. And, of course, Atwood relishes gems of pre-feminist thinking.

Grace's pro-bono lawyer: "She'd have made a good lawyer, if a man." Grace on her post-prison marriage: "I made a show of hanging back, though the reality of it was that I did not have many other choices ..." This comes as no surprise to those familiar with Atwood's tendency to wax political, clearly a concern more dear to her than a devotion to literary excellence. ++ But such is the case when writers favor ideology over art, a crime for which Atwood's guilt is unambiguous.

Pia Catton, a reporter for the Weekly Standard, writes about feminism. She has studied at the Claremont Institute for the study of statesmanship and political philosophy.

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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