Review of novels by Margaret Atwood.

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Alias Grace.

This novel is slow in getting started, as it works you into the historical setting of two notorious back-woods murders in nineteenth century Canada. Atwood had already written a play on the incident. A collection of her poems is named after a woman, who left written evidence of the events. So what drew her back?

A maid-servant, barely into her teens, was only a fortnight at house, when its master was murdered. She ran away with the young man, who also murdered the mistress of the household - mistress in the fullest sense of the word. Also, she was wearing clothing belonging to the murdered woman, when the fugitives were caught just over the border, in the United States.

Grace, then, was well and truly implicated. But the trial procedures left a lot to be desired. Grace was held for months in custody, as tho she was as good as proven guilty and her being charged a formality. Right up to the scaffold, the murderer blamed her for leading him on. He was known to be a man, whose word could not be trusted.
The pair should have had separate defense lawyers to represent their separate interests. Yet they were tried by the same lawyer, as if their case was the same and the fates of both stood or fell together.

Moreover, the job was passed on to a novice. He is supposed to have conducted his first case well. Atwood says in her end notes, to the novel, that she couldnt trace him, because several lawyers of that period bore his name. This hardly speaks well for his supposed distinction. More likely, the merits of Grace's defense almost spoke for her. Former employers did speak for her character.

Such a high-profile defense case, being given to a beginner, gives away how unpopular the cause. There had been a rebellion in Canada and this murder was seen as another case of the lower orders rising up against their masters. Political passion may have prevented an objective account of Grace's part in the crime or of her giving a coherent account of herself. A competant investigation should have got to the truth of the matter.

In fact, Grace was not pardoned from her life sentence, till the franchise was extended, many years later, and she received a more sympathetic hearing from the new regime.

Atwood says Grace didnt help her case by giving three different versions of events. One wishes that former court reporter, Charles Dickens had stopped by, to make some 'Canadian notes', on the lines, perhaps, of 'Bardell vs Pickwick' or 'Jarndyce and Jarndyce'.

Court scenes are conspicuously missing from Atwood's novel. We inhabit a woman's world of Mrs Beeton's household management, told from Grace, the servant's point of view.
A young doctor interviews her. He is trying to understand the workings of the mind with the Association psychology of his day. With comic ineptness, he tries to pick Grace's locked mind on her past.

At the same time, Grace finds he is the merest baby, when it comes to understanding anything about household economy - really the basics of survival in the harsh Canadian wilderness.
These details gave plenty of fibre to the story.

Atwood takes us thru every possibility of Grace's involvement with the crime. Because the case was botched, the author's evident integrity obliges her to try out characters like costumes on Grace. She may even have been a morally corrupt child, for all we know. It is a tribute to the novelist's skill that she manages to harmonise all the different possible ways of seeing Grace in one story, without resorting to a science fiction of alternative histories.

Late on, Grace has a sleep-walking dream, like a work of surrealist art, featuring the beast of seduction. But we are not sure whether this took place with the murderer or the murdered man or whether it really took place at all!

Atwood had already invented a character with suppressed multiple personality, in The Robber Bride ( to be reviewed next ) and this further possibility of Grace's character explains the title Alias Grace.

We are left to believe just about anything we want about Grace. The novel speaks thru her but she doesnt know what to think of herself. This gives her an innocence of a sort. And it allows her to become a symbol of all women have endured at the hands of men.
Her father is represented as a vicious and selfish wastrel - not the only one in the novel, either, just in case we mistake him for an exception.

Grace's prison escorts are a couple of foul-mouthed ruffians, trying to have it off with her. Nor are some of her over-seers from the professional classes free from trying to take advantage.
Thackeray said that literature had not been able to express this seemy side of life, since Henry Fielding. Dickens' novels are full of scoundrels imposing their basest passions on helpless women. But you dont get the actual coarse banter that allows you to know how a woman feels to be subjected to its threats and humiliations and dangers.

Ironically, Grace might almost be one of Dickens' innocents. But her maid friend, the alias of Grace, who dies from a callous abortion, is as realistic as she is earthy. The undeniable hint is that she is deceived by a spoilt youth from the upper class, who is covered-up for.

Not all Atwood's men characters are bad. The psychiatric doctor, who inter-views Grace, is introspective enough to recognise his potential lack of self-control. Yet he is seduced without difficulty by his land-lady - another abused wife. We dont spy her thoughts but her actions, which show her going out of her mind with infatuation.
If a thirty year old man gets himself into a complete mess, then how does one expect a girl half his age, to have fared with an unscrupulous man?

It takes his mother to extricate him. This gently mocked, fussy mother hen of a character, we only hear of by letter, proves unexpectedly firm and wise. Atwood throws off some marvellously drawn minor characters.

The mother's continued advice to invest in railways and sowing machines is perhaps as much a joke at the expense of the over-rated male world of inventions. The sowing machine is admitted to be a real potential help against the female drudgery of perpetual darning. But when Grace leaves prison at last, she is only alarmed by a train as a great clanking monster - no admiration, there.

Alias Grace is a novel from the woman's point of view, in the fullest sense. Atwood's male characters are thoroly convincing to their masculine souls. But they are generally spoilt. In an uncharacteristic slip, Atwood speaks as the author, rather than one of her characters, when she says Grace's psychiatrist ( Dr Jordan ) is spoilt, because he is not used to the insubordination of his waiting maid.

The novel is not really about whether Grace is more or less innocent or guilty. That is beyond our reach. Tho, that question drives the plot.
Alias Grace shows up the corrupting master-servant relation between men and women.

The pedlar is the exception that proves the rule. He offers Grace a relation of equality. But this travelling salesman cannot offer her the security of the home, which is also the woman's prison.




Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride.

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J B Priestley attributed success as a writer to 'a genius for hard work'. I know an aspiring novelist, who has that, and intelligence, too. And she was all enthusiasm for The Robber Bride. It's an insight into the human condition, I hazarded. She agreed that it was that. Now she was reading Alias Grace - a fan, then.

Atwood was at a disadvantage with Grace, as a character. She had to respect the historical facts about her. But the fact is that her character wasnt really known. It seems to me, Atwood makes a symbol out of her, for the ordeal of being a woman, while admitting her frailty and short-comings.
A woman, at our local reading club, put it less sympathetically, by saying: there's a strong smell of burning martyr about Grace.

Those, who know, reckon if you can create characters, youre almost there to being a novelist. Your characters will lead their own lives and you will have a story. Characters are Atwood's strong suite. The Robber Bride follows three disparate women, who are brought together by their man-stealing acquiantance, Zenia - the robber bride.

Margaret Atwood is fond, perhaps over-fond, of prefacing her stories with quotations. But they can give the game away. Who needs reviewers? So, we are quoted: a rattlesnake, that doesnt bite, teaches you nothing.
On learning that Zenia, the deadly creature isnt dead, after all, the three heroines gather round for safety, like three small mammals, quivering for the safety of their surviving men folk, at the return of the man-eater.

I forget the second quotation. No doubt it is highly significant. But the third was to do with the cherishing of illusions. You strip people of their illusions at your peril.

The reader enters the thoughts of each of the three heroines in turn. The first is a diminutive military historian. By some miracle, she ponders how her man is still with her, after Zenia's depredations.
Zenia swopped confidences with her and won her pity. She cheated her, came back and picked her partner up, before throwing him away again, like an old dish cloth.

But after all, he did know Zenia first, and Zenia is about as resistible to men as a runaway lorry. So, our forgiving first heroine thinks. But our lulled suspicions are gradually awakened by the emerging nature of the relationship of the second heroine with 'her' man.

He is a Vietnam war draft dodger. Alright, that war is long discredited now. Here we have a just cause for a woman to feel compassion and take the man in. But we are made more uneasy, until it is more than a question of who has been 'taken in'. Again, Zenia insinuates herself and eventually takes him away.
Heroine two is a scatty New Ager, drawn with commanding knowledge of all the baggage that entails. She is not to be persuaded her fugitive never really could be taken from her, because he was never hers.

She is a sensitive who can see auras but she cannot divest herself of her illusion of a loving relationship, she needs so desperately after an abused childhood, that is the apparent cause of a split personality.

Atwood would use this psychiatric condition, in Alias Grace, hence the title. Curiously, it seems less crucial to the latter than the former novel's plot. I am being scanty on details, because I dont want to spoil the enjoyment of future readers. The novelist is crafty. If you skip on your way down the pages, you are liable to miss some cleared misunderstanding or revelation as to the nature of her various major and minor characters. Like life, appearances can be misleading, and often are.

The third heroine is a different personality, again - the corporate business-woman. She is the type, who doesnt think she can ever compete in the looks league, so decides to be smart and funny instead. Her wealth attracts a hunk, of family, for a husband, who infatuates her - and all the women he seduces. She maintains the illusion of their marriage, by covering up for him.
Working on the dubious origins of the corporate wealth, Zenia steps in and uses the adulterer as he had used others.

By now Zenia the fallen angel is, in effect, an avenging angel. How does she practise her witchery? How does she, like a pick-pocket, slip out a man's soul? Seeing it for the abject thing it is, she throws it away in contempt?
For, when it comes down to it, Zenia is nothing more than a glamorous confidence trickster.

When challenged on her soul-stealing, in the denouement, Zenia's answer is interesting. But we never share her thoughts. We know she moves freely and puzzlingly across the ambiguous boundaries of truth and falsehood. ( 'Zenia lies.' ) She is, on that account, as ambiguous as life, itself. Life cannot be taken on trust and neither can she. She is more like a force of nature than a human being. Both nature and Zenia are 'out there' and lack scruples.
We never really learn to what social back-ground she belonged, to make some sense of her exploiting ways.

The truth may be she doesnt really belong anywhere. She's a privateer, a pirate - that obvious image is used - but even pirates need to come into port, occasionally. Tho, they always abuse their shore leave. Genuine confidences slip out: that men are only interested in getting sex and the only question is how much you can make them pay.
There is a ring of truth that Zenia didnt commit quite all the offences put down to her. Signs of tiredness show.

And are the three heroines quite what they should be? In the end, they bring their questions about what Zenia did or is plotting now. When her mix of deceit and frankness, at last, fails their trust, her hatefulness comes out. It is devastatingly charged with more than a little home truth about themselves.

Writing this review made me think again that the three heroines were wimps towards their men. Three different types, their various origins still led to kinds of inferiority complex that made all three pathetically grateful to have partners, who more or less let them down.
It's Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte, but as 'All men are like that' - unfaithful.
Were these men worth standing by? Each case would have to be decided on its merits. The three women make their decisions, which they may or may not come to regret.

As in Alias Grace, the male characters range from inadequate to horrible. The pedlar was an apparent exception to the rule but he couldnt offer a settled life, a nest, for Grace. Similarly, in The Robber Bride, the business-woman has the perfect male assistant but his being gay proves to have reproductive drawbacks, in the story.

An exchange between women sets the novel's tone. This is the never-failing excitement, they pass on to each other, at having found themselves a man, tho he usually proves a disappointment.




Cat's Eye

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A cat's eye is a marble. It serves in the story as a forgotten girlhood fetish secreted in a purse, stowed in the steamer trunk in the cellar. This is a first-person narrative about a woman who feels alien to the rest of the human race, as well as herself.

Her father is a field entomologist, given to early warnings on the world's woes. His family's nomadic life-style is more than physically eccentric. Her elder brother, her only playmate, of sorts, is a physics prodigy, who becomes absorbed in cosmology.

She, Elaine, is a social version of the many-world's theory. Some physicists suspect, from the merest experimental hints, that our universe is only one of a multitude shut off from each other.
Likewise, Atwood's story is told from her point of view. Others' thoughts are divined thru her.

When the family stopped-over, in the town, the girl got the companionship, she had yearned. Three girls become part of her life. When her family returns from the wilds, they form a reception committee.
But Elaine's relation to them is based on a wrong assumption, from which she barely saves herself.

The novel forms a life story. Like real biographies, the childhood recollections are the most powerfully rendered. On some days, the trio of Cordelia, Grace and Carol treat Elaine with kindness and affection. On others, they reprimand her. Grace's parents induct her into church-going. But Elaine finds that Cordelia expects her every whim to be religiously observed.

She leads the trio's secret policing of Elaine's behavior, at school or wherever. A woman writer confirmed to me that Atwood's portrayal is authentic. Indeed, there are points of similarity with the treatment of political prisoners.

One ruse of captors is to replace a terrifying interrogator with an apparently kind and helpful one. This is to make the prisoner relieved, dependant and gratefully compliant.
Arbitrary conventions, put upon one, under-mine reliance on reason, whose independent judgement is regarded as a threat to the authority of those in control. And Elaine is worn down. Her health suffers.

Telling on one's persecutors, by seeking a more humane system of values from parents ( comparable to courting the inter-national treaty on human rights ) is regarded as treason, because public disapproval would stop their little game.

Unchecked, the trio go too far. The high point of the book is when Elaine just survives to wise-up and walk away. She is still afraid of the insolent demands and threats. But she perceives they are losing their needed scapegoat. Their clamor recedes. They were not 'best friends' not even friends. She is free.

By accident, Elaine learned that narrow suburban minds were behind the 'disciplining'. Mainly, Mrs Smeath, the orthodox mother of Grace was to blame.

After Elaine turns from her father's biological drawings to art, she finds herself producing outré portraits of Mrs Smeath. Conventional morality christens her painting with a flung ink bottle. Elaine is launched on her career.

Elaine was puzzled why she hated the woman so much to fuel this perverse creativity. The point is that childhood is unreflective. A year after her miseries, she has so far forgotten them, that she allows herself to be befriended by Cordelia. Her former peremptory manner is gradually exposed as a lack of responsibility to others or herself.

Elaine's unconscious mind is not only the source of spontaneous creativity but of dormant desperation, ready to take over again, should her adult life become as stressed as her childhood.
Of course, this happens, predictably thru an affair and a marriage with two specimens in Atwood's gallery of unattractive manhood.

And Elaine's children feature as inconvenient luggage up steps and thru doorways, in this down-beat solipsist novel.

Elaine's mother reminds her of the hard time her 'friends' gave her. She can exorcise the desperate measures of a harassed nine-year old, still surreptitiously goading her. She may stand-down the defensive hard-case, she became, that, nevertheless, dreaded turning into another Cordelia.


Richard Lung



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