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Old 10-15-2018, 08:25 AM   #1
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November 2018 Discussion • Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood is the November selection for the New Leaf Book Club.



Alias Grace is a novel of historical fiction by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. First published in 1996 by McClelland & Stewart, it won the Canadian Giller Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

The story fictionalizes the notorious 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in Canada West.

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Old 11-15-2018, 12:03 AM   #2
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It's time to talk about Alias Grace. What did we think about it?
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Old 11-15-2018, 03:19 AM   #3
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Fact or fiction?

As a rule, I dislike excessively revealing introductions (like the one in my edition of The House on the Strand), but for fictionalised versions of real events I prefer to know up-front what is real and what is made up. So in the case of this book I would have preferred to have had the "Author's Afterword" given as an introduction.

Lacking an informative introduction, I did some cursory research as I read. This gave such disconcerting things as the Wikipedia article on Grace Marks that says: "What is known of Marks on the historical record comes primarily from Susanna Moodie's book Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush."

Now I'd already taken a quick look at Moodie's very moody chapter on Grace Marks, (see Project Gutenberg), in which Moodie tells us: "About eight or nine years ago--I write from memory, and am not very certain as to dates--a young Irish emigrant girl was hired into the service of Captain Kinnaird, an officer on half-pay, who had purchased a farm about thirty miles in the rear of Toronto; but the name of the township, and the county in which it was situated, I have forgotten; but this is of little consequence to my narrative."

Taken together, the Wikipedia and Moodie sources offer a very inauspicious start. From these we might assume that all of Atwood's story was fiction. However, we eventually reach Atwood's afterword and get some reassurance that there is more to rely on than Susanna Moodie (thank goodness!).

I'm not a fan of this sort of fictionalisation, but having finally reached the end of it I can say that I think Atwood seems to have, technically at least, done a reasonable job in blending of fact and fiction (accepting what she tells me in the afterword). This much is good.
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Old 11-15-2018, 03:30 AM   #4
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I had a LOT of trouble reading this book.

The first 80..100 pages were hard work. As a writer I found some interest in them, some aspects were clever, and as a reader I thought the result was not totally lacking in good effect. (But is this damned by faint praise?) By about page 100 we know the full story in about as much relevant detail as we ever learn in the subsequent 350 pages, and it has been achieved in an unusual manner. But I found much of the prose awkward and the construction different enough that careful attention was required - hence "hard work".

Then we should be settling into the main recital from Grace. I thought it would smooth out and perhaps become easier/faster, but instead I found the prose to be like a sleeping pill. It wasn't that I found it without interest, although there seemed far more text than warranted, and we don't actually learn anything factually new, but there was something in the rhythm or style that was like a lullaby to me. Within a few pages of picking it up my eyelids would start drooping and I'd have to sit up straight and slap myself in the face a few times before I could keep going for another few pages.

By the end I had a bruised face and had found no apparent advantage to forcing myself to read the last 350 pages.

All up, I'm not sure I'm qualified to give an assessment because I'm not sure how much I was awake to take in. I did manage to stay reasonably alert for the last 50 pages or so (of almost pure fiction?) and found it much less than convincing. Given what had gone before I'm not convinced a happy ending fitted very well.

I do have lots of text highlighted in my copy that I still have to work back through, things I thought at the time seem relevant to the guilt or innocence of Grace. But such conjecture is probably pointless. We are now at how many removes from the real events? Based on Atwood's book I think I could make a case for several different versions. I wonder if that was her intention.

This is not a book that I am ever going to pick up again. I only finished it because it was for book club - and I'm thinking now a good summary version could have saved me some time and effort (although I may have gotten less much needed sleep).

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Old 11-15-2018, 08:12 AM   #5
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In summary, I quite enjoyed it (I gave it 3.5 stars on Goodreads) but I thought it was too long. I also found the whole side story of Dr Jordan got to be too intrusive when I was wanting to concentrate on Grace, though I can see it was there to point up the idea of being manipulated into doing something you don't want to do, and that for a man, compared with a girl of 16.

Grace definitely fitted the "unreliable narrator" theme very well. She was remarkably eloquent and had an extraordinary memory for all sorts of details - or did she? Early on, she comments to herself about Dr Jordan:

Quote:
He's playing a guessing game, like Dr Bannerling at the Asylum. There is always a right answer, which is right because it is the one they want, and you can tell by their faces whether you have guessed what it is; although with Dr Bannerling all of the answers were wrong. (Chapter 5.)
I thought this assessment by Grace of the various people who said they want to help her was spot on:

Quote:
Help is what they offer but gratitude is what they want, they roll around in it like cats in the catnip. (Chapter 5.)
One thing I wasn't expecting from the book was the amount of humour in it. The observations about the various characters can be really very funny, whether we are sharing Grace's thoughts, or are hearing from the narrator.
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Old 11-15-2018, 12:23 PM   #6
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In a synchronicity of timing, a week ago the Guardian had an article about Top 10 modern Victorian novels, including Alias Grace.

They had this to say:

Quote:
Atwood has always given us big ideas, but she hasn’t always shown as much interest in people. Alias Grace is as much a novel of ideas as any she has written, but is centred for once on a transfixing study of character. Grace Marks was a real (and notorious) historical character, an Irish maid convicted in 1843 of a brutal double murder. While brilliantly dramatising the Victorian urge to medicalise femininity, this novel dignifies its central character even as it wrings from the question of her guilt a merciless degree of suspense.
There's a lot to discuss there, but in a way the tag line to the article is what interested me most:

Quote:
Narrative tricks minted in the 19th century are still working in contemporary fiction by authors from Margaret Atwood to Sarah Waters
as that was the point of my own Goodreads reviews. With Goodreads, I generally don't bother with a full-on review, but just focus on a point or two to serve as a memory-jogger, if nothing else. Coincidentally, this is what I had to say:

Quote:
Among the dualities explored by Atwood is that of the Victorian novel v. a 20th century perspective on the Victorian novel. To the extent this is to function as a Victorian novel, it's heavy weather. Much is explained that would be taken as a given and the middle of the book is rather a slog as nothing happens. Still, there's much going on underneath and the issues engage. There are no answers
In short, I thought it worked as an examination of issues, but it didn't succeed in that greatest of all qualities of the Victorian novel, being a good read.
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Old 11-15-2018, 10:35 PM   #7
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For the first time I listened to the Audiobook rather than reading the ebook. I was unimpressed. Whilst the book had its moments, it was not a good read. There was little exciting or engaging in it. I don't tend to read many historical novels these days, though I once did. And whilst background details can be a highlight of this sort of novel, in this case I've read it all before. This is not to say that the book does not have any worthwhile points.

I'm going to discuss only one aspect. We were yet again treated to a reminder that childhood as we know it today, at least for most of the population, was pretty well non-existent. In much of the world that remains true today. Grace was 12 when she entered service and was expected to function as an adult, albeit at an entry level. She had little formal education, at least by todays standards. She was expected to engage with that adult world and her elders without any of the protections or even expectations of protections which children have today. Little if any allowance was made for youth and naivety. She was only 16 when she participated in the murder, and not much older when sentenced to death.

I did not dislike the book, and did finish it. However, I saw little remarkable in it, and disliked the somewhat ponderous style in which it was written. Likewise I don't dislike either Atwood or her books, though she is certainly not one of my favourite authors.
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Old 11-16-2018, 01:11 AM   #8
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Not only did Grace go to work (and was expected to contribute her wages back to her family) but her deadbeat dad disappeared on her with her siblings and she was truly all alone. At that age shocking if today and standard in Victorian times. I’d be haunted by guilt and sadness at her mother’s death and burial too.

I’m still reading/listening to the book. I’m whisper-syncing this time to speed the process. I’m into the second half now. I like the audiobook narration, which I think is by the actress who plays Grace in the TV series. The long monologues are ok with the tedium of traffic.

I love historical fiction and especially the Victorian era. It’s one of my favorite genres so I’m really enjoying this book. However it’s definitely bleak and not a very fun book. Although as Bookpossum mentioned, it has some wry humor.
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Old 11-16-2018, 01:48 AM   #9
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Some of the humour that I enjoyed was related to religion (which probably says more about me than the book ):

Quote:
It is shocking how many crimes the Bible contains. The Governor’s wife should cut them all out and paste them into her scrapbook.
Quote:
A Methodist tray: not flamboyant, but quietly affirmative of its own worth.
Quote:
for a woman as pious as she was, she lied very well;
Quote:
Heaven, for the Presbyterians, must resemble a banking establishment, with each soul tagged and docketed, and placed in the appropriate pigeonhole.
Quote:
"The Methodists like their monuments monumental; block-like, unmistakable, like the thick black lines drawn under finalized accounts in his father’s ledger book: Paid In Full.
Not sure if I was supposed to find all those funny (I never got the impression that Grace laughed at much). There were some less humorous expressions that I highlighted:

Quote:
surely the insane, like idiots and cripples, owe their state to Almighty Providence, and one should not attempt to reverse decisions which are certainly just, although inscrutable to us.
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they think the church is a cage to keep God in,
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Old 11-16-2018, 01:58 AM   #10
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And speaking of the Govenor's wife's scrapbook (first quote above), this paragraph from chapter three is part of the hard work I was talking about:
Quote:
The Governor’s wife’s scrapbook is kept on the round table with the silk shawl covering it, branches like vines intertwined, with flowers and red fruit and blue birds, it is really one large tree and if you stare at it long enough the vines begin to twist as if a wind is blowing them. It was sent from India by her eldest daughter who is married to a missionary, which is not a thing I would care to do myself. You would be sure to die early, if not from the rioting natives as at Cawnpore with horrid outrages committed on the persons of respectable gentlewomen, and a mercy they were all slaughtered and put out of their misery, for only think of the shame; then from the malaria, which turns you entirely yellow, and you expire in raving fits; in any case before you could turn around, there you would be, buried under a palm tree in a foreign clime. I have seen pictures of them in the book of Eastern engravings the Governor’s wife takes out when she wishes to shed a tear.
Anyone want to take a stab at decoding the first two sentences? The branch and tree descriptions relate to what exactly? Is the silk covering the table or the scrapbook? What was sent from India?

Such disjointed thoughts were intentional, I assume, but they do not make for easy reading.
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Old 11-16-2018, 06:47 AM   #11
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I see what you mean gmw! I think the silk shawl is covering the table. It was sent from India and it is embroidered with the tree, fruit, birds, etc.
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Old 11-16-2018, 06:50 AM   #12
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I'm still listening to this, with more than 7 hours still to go, so won't join in the discussion yet.

All I will say is that I'm never in a rush to get back to listening to it. I've found myself (on my long commute) listening to the radio the whole way and forgetting to get back to the story.
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Old 11-16-2018, 07:13 AM   #13
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Bookworm_Girl, you mention the deadbeat father. In Chapter 33 there is a short section which I interpreted as her remembering being raped by her father. Did others think this also? If it is not her father being referred to, it is some other man abusing her sexually.

As Darryl noted above, there was no childhood for this girl, and a great many grim experiences. I thought that Atwood's explanation of what happened when the murders took place was an interesting and plausible one. (I'm trying to avoid being spoilery.)

There are a number of suggestions through the book that she is telling an interesting story to please Dr Jordan, for example:

Quote:
Because he was so thoughtful as to bring me this radish, I set to work willingly to tell my story, and to make it as interesting as I can, and rich in incident, as a sort of return gift to him; for I have always believed that one good turn deserves another. (Chapter 28.)
It was a bit reminiscent of Scheherezade weaving tales in The Thousand and One Nights. Grace is weaving her long and detailed story to please Dr Jordan, but we have no idea of where the truth might lie.
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Old 11-16-2018, 08:20 AM   #14
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Originally Posted by Bookpossum View Post
I see what you mean gmw! I think the silk shawl is covering the table. It was sent from India and it is embroidered with the tree, fruit, birds, etc.
I think this is probably the only interpretation that makes sense, but it took me a few goes to get there. Thankfully from around ch12 or so the author gets a little less stylistic in presenting Grace's thoughts.

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Originally Posted by Bookpossum View Post
Bookworm_Girl, you mention the deadbeat father. In Chapter 33 there is a short section which I interpreted as her remembering being raped by her father. Did others think this also? If it is not her father being referred to, it is some other man abusing her sexually.
In chapter 33 it seemed to me she was always talking about either Mr Kinnear or McDermott. Grace remembers what she heard between Kinnear and Nancy in chapter 31 ("But I did listen afterwards, once they’d gone up; and I heard Mr. Kinnear saying, I know you’re hiding, come out right now, you dirty girl, do as I say, or I will have to catch you, and when I do") and seems to apply it to herself in some way, and she remembers claims made by McDermott in his statements, but there was nothing I thought of as applicable to her father.

In chapter 3 Grace says:
Quote:
They said I had a good character; and that was so, because nobody had ever taken advantage of me, although they tried.
Can we take this to mean neither her father, nor McDermott, nor Kinnear got the better of her?

Quote:
Originally Posted by Bookpossum View Post
[...]
There are a number of suggestions through the book that she is telling an interesting story to please Dr Jordan, for example:
[...]
It was a bit reminiscent of Scheherezade weaving tales in The Thousand and One Nights. Grace is weaving her long and detailed story to please Dr Jordan, but we have no idea of where the truth might lie.
Wanting to please Dr Jordan, or wanting to manipulate the situation. I definitely had that impression. It was probably a mixture of both:
Quote:
he has an uneasy sense that the very plenitude of her recollections may be a sort of distraction, a way of drawing the mind away from some hidden but essential fact,
Quote:
Simon finds himself apologizing to her, and no wiser into the bargain.
Quote:
Dr. Jordan is writing eagerly, as if his hand can scarcely keep up, and I have never seen him so animated before. It does my heart good to feel I can bring a little pleasure into a fellow-being’s life; and I think to myself, I wonder what he will make of all that.
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What he wants is certainty, one way or the other; and that is precisely what she’s withholding from him.
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Old 11-16-2018, 08:44 AM   #15
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It wasn't that I found it without interest, although there seemed far more text than warranted, and we don't actually learn anything factually new
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Originally Posted by Bookpossum View Post
Grace definitely fitted the "unreliable narrator" theme very well. She was remarkably eloquent and had an extraordinary memory for all sorts of details - or did she?
Quote:
Originally Posted by Bookpossum View Post
It was a bit reminiscent of Scheherezade weaving tales in The Thousand and One Nights. Grace is weaving her long and detailed story to please Dr Jordan, but we have no idea of where the truth might lie.
I had the same thought about Scherezade, even to the extent of spinning out her story, in Grace's case for the possibility of freedom and also for the immediate boon of time out of prison and not working. As long as she could keep Dr. Jordan writing things down, she had a reprieve from her usual existence. There was even the immediate benefit of living in the past and divorcing herself from her surroundings; even her grim childhood probably took on a gloss compared to life in prison.

But, I also thought there was a less organic reason for Grace's tedious narration, namely that Atwood was showing off. In line with gmw's comment about some of it was awkward, I thought Atwood went out of her way to give us the benefit of her research and perhaps even was making a meta comment on things that novels don't tell, because they're too ordinary to be worth it. She justified it with an exchange between Dr. Jordan and Grace about how Dr. Jordan didn't understand how a Victorian house was run, so Grace told him in all the soporific details, even down to relieving herself - which is a standard trope of things not told, but taken as given.

I thought it one of those differences between a Victorian novel and Atwood's version of one; a Victorian novel of its time doesn't go into all that stultifying detail, because why would it? People reading it as contemporaries had that knowledge, but Atwood patronizes us here.

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Originally Posted by gmw View Post
I do have lots of text highlighted in my copy that I still have to work back through, things I thought at the time seem relevant to the guilt or innocence of Grace. But such conjecture is probably pointless. We are now at how many removes from the real events? Based on Atwood's book I think I could make a case for several different versions. I wonder if that was her intention.
I absolutely think that was her intention.

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Originally Posted by gmw View Post
And speaking of the Govenor's wife's scrapbook (first quote above), this paragraph from chapter three is part of the hard work I was talking about:

Anyone want to take a stab at decoding the first two sentences? The branch and tree descriptions relate to what exactly? Is the silk covering the table or the scrapbook? What was sent from India?
I thought the branch and tree descriptions tied into one of her ongoing themes, both about women's work and domestic arts and the branch/tree motif, which persisted through the book. A reference to the hanging that Grace escaped?
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