Margaret Atwood is a Christian child parading in agnostic clothing. Alias Grace (1996) is her barbed blessing to middle-brow readers with high-brow aspirations. She writes pellucid screeds as the best banshees did a century or two ago, which isn’t out of style given her topic, and speaks truth saying that Grace lies and yet doesn’t.
Here is a first-person (kudos for this authorial decision) portrait of an infamous, real-life murderess, with added frills that undermine rather than enhance its sweep. Three-quarters of the novel offer one of the best slow psycho yarns I have ever read only to have the need for telling parallels drive the plot askew.
Was is really necessary to have pre-Freudian confessor Dr Jordan on the verge of duplicating in decidedly grotty fashion the same pattern that led to the downfall of his patient? Yes, perhaps to show how decent you and I would have behaved in such a fix, as Grace didn’t, the more’s the pity. But sorry: the setting isn’t the same; Dr Jordan’s apple isn’t Grace’s pear; and his late murderous volitions do not quite fit the placid fellow we were introduced to.
Who else but a woman writer would expatiate at such lengths over linen, never mind that stitching is the jailbird’s main pastime and the patchwork leitmotiv is a laudably clever conceit?
Did we need so many inklings on the prehistory of psychoanalysis?
There is in this wonderful book much to be admired in terms of language variegations, tone rifts from guileless to bitchy, intricacy of plot, character building even, and yet in fine the pudding is overegged, and (probably unbeknownst to the author) drenched with subliminal Christian values, which might account for much of its success.
Reading the book to find out whether Grace is guilty as charged, as teenagers are wont to do, would be to misread it from the start, obviously, but the belated séance giving a nasty twist to the plot is either too much or too little, let alone end-of-book coincidences that provide for a happy ending of sorts to please the crowds.
I must reread The Blind Assassin, of which as usual with most Bookers I remember nothing, and The Robber Bride, of which I remember precious little, to see whether that religious underpinning is there too. They say The Handmaid’s Tale is so far her best, on the science fiction side of her genius that since then has produced Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.