Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Margaret Atwood’

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

I included Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood in my Classics Club book list as a bit of a cheat since I’m working my way through her books anyway, but thought I might as well tick another book off my list.

Alias Grace is unlike any of the stories I’ve already read by this author. Several have been dystopian, while another two were so real I suspect they were based on the author’s own life experiences. Alias Grace is a fictional account of an actual woman who was convicted of two murders in Canada in 1843. The known facts of the case were used by the author to anchor her fictional story.

Grace Marks was a servant at a remote farm when she and James McDermott were found guilty of murdering their employer, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Grace was only 16 years old at the time of the murders. The pair were caught soon after fleeing to the USA and returned to Canada to face trail for the crimes. McDermott was hanged and Grace was sentenced to life in prison.

When the story began, Grace had been a prisoner for many years. By day, she worked as a servant in the prison Governor’s home, returning each night to the prison. The Governor’s wife and her guests were fascinated by Grace, and were alternately thrilled or horrified by having her in their midst. Grace’s beauty and self-possession added to their intrigue.

A doctor researching criminal behaviour came to Canada specifically to interview Grace. He sat with Grace in the Governor’s home as she sewed and tried unsuccessfully for some time to prompt her to talk about the actual murders, which she told him she had forgotten about. Eventually the doctor asked Grace to tell him about her childhood, which she did, starting with her abusive, drunkard father, her constantly pregnant mother and their battle with poverty and too many children. Grace told him her of her mother’s death on the ship to America from Ireland, how she became a servant and eventually lost touch with her father, younger brothers and sisters as she moved from situation to situation.

The doctor’s own somewhat messy personal life also became part of the story. Newspaper accounts of the crime, letters between the characters and poems were also used to tell the story.

Grace is a fascinating character and this is an intriguing story, which has left me with plenty of things to think about.

Alias Grace was book twelve in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2013.

If we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged.

Alias Grace is broken up into chapters named for quilts, such as Ducks and Geese and Pandora’s Box, with pictures of the quilt patterns. I particularly enjoyed making the connection between the contents of each chapter and the name of the quilt patterns.

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Moral Disorder and other stories by Margaret Atwood


I’m enjoying working my way through Margaret Atwood’s fiction, most recently, Moral Disorder and other stories, a collection of short stories from 2006.

The collection tells stories from different periods of the main character’s life. She is un-named until about three-quarters of the way through the book, when ‘Nell’ appears. I have assumed that the earlier stories are also about Nell, although this is unconfirmed.

The first story, The Bad News, introduces the main character and her partner, Tig, in their old age. They have developed patterns of behaviour throughout their many years together, one of which is that Tig, who gets up first in the morning and watches the news, is not to tell Nell any bad news until after she has eaten her breakfast.

The Art of Cooking and Serving is a story of Nell as a little girl willingly working in the family home and helping out her mother with her little sister until one day as a teenager she rebels, telling her mother, “She’s not my baby. I didn’t have her. You did.”

The stories feel so true that they could be autobiographical. The Headless Horseman tells of Nell making a costume for Halloween which alternately fascinates and terrifies her much younger sister and My Last Duchess of a class in school where Robert Browning’s poem is being studied. This story was one of my favourites. I didn’t know the poem, so enjoyed looking it up, but I also loved that Nell was learning life lessons, recognising the end of her latest romantic relationship and even more importantly, learning to recognise and value her teachers and the hidden values they were trying to impart to Nell and her fellow students.

The Other Place shows Nell as a young woman, moving often, changing jobs and boyfriends, and not seeing her parents, who disapprove of her lifestyle. Monopoly tells of the early days of Nell’s relationship with Tig, a separated father of two and Nell’s own relationship with Tig’s ex-wife. The title story, Moral Disorder, was another of my favourites and superficially tells of Nell and Tig learning to farm and feeling guilty that chickens they have grown (and named) taste delicious when roasted. This story reminded me of growing up on a farm, as whenever we had a lamb in the backyard Dad called the lamb Chop-Chop so there would be no illusions about why the lamb was in our yard.

White Horse has Nell as an adult, again caring for her younger sister. The Entities shows Nell and Tig moving house, then The Labrador Fiasco and The Boys at the Lab has Nell reunited with and caring for her parents in their old age.

The more I read by Margaret Atwood, the more I appreciate her stories and her wonderfully clear writing.

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

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Trying to understand what was going on in Margaret Atwood’s second novel, Surfacing, was a little bit like being underwater with your eyes open and trying to figure out what was going on out of the water. I suspect that was the author’s intention.

The story is set in Canada. The narrator, an un-named young woman, returns to her family home, a cabin on a remote island, to search for her missing father. She is accompanied by her lover and a married couple, all of whom she has met very recently.

The writing in Surfacing is good, particularly the author’s choice of words, although some parts are in my least favourite style; present-tense. My biggest problem was not likeing the plot. I also struggled to connect with the narrator and I didn’t like the other main characters, although to be fair, I don’t think the author’s intention was to create likeable characters. Superficially the character’s relationships with each other are swinging and cool, (Surfacing was written during the late 1960’s or early 1970’s), but beneath the surface, they hold grudges and judge each other and themselves. There are undercurrents everywhere.

Canadian nationalism is an important theme, but the characters’ struggles with this went over my head, although I suspect Canadian readers would ‘get’ this book.

The remoteness of the location, which requires locals to be almost complete self-sufficient, is intriguing.

Despite not appreciating Surfacing as much as The Handmaid’s Tale or The Heart Goes Last, I’m looking forward to working through her novels in chronological order, since I love Margaret Atwood’s fearlessness in writing the madder dystopian novels which she is best known for.

 

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

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There is no way of knowing what goes on in other people’s heads unless they are writers, and based on the two novels I’ve read by Margaret Atwood, stranger stuff goes on in her imagination than what happens in mine. The Heart Goes Last has one of the most bizarre and entertaining plots that I’ve read in some time.

I haven’t read a Margaret Atwood novel since reading The Handmaid’s Tale thirty years ago, probably because that story completely freaked me out. In saying that, I probably should be reading everything this author writes, because remembering the plot for three decades is my definition of a good book. I expect I will be thinking about The Heart Goes Last for some time too.

The story follows an American couple, Stan and Charmaine, who in the beginning of the story are living in their car after losing their jobs and their home. At first, their America seems quite real and recognisable, although it is still not a place I would want to live. Australia is kinder to people who are down on their luck.

When Charmaine sees an advertisement on television for applicants to take part in the Positron Project, where she and Stan would have the opportunity to work and live in a home of their own in the town of Consilience, she convinces Stan to apply with her. They are accepted into the project and have very few doubts about going in, despite the fact that they are signing up for life and that for half of their time they will be prisoners in the town’s prison. After living in their car for so long and fending off other people who wanted to take what little they have, the Positron Project offered them security.

A year later, and Stan and Charmaine have settled into their new life in Consilience. They both have jobs and they are happy in their home. Stan enjoys trimming the hedges and mowing the lawn, while Charmaine revels in their home, particularly the kitchen appliances and fluffy white towels. At the end of each month in their home, they tidy up and stash their personal possessions into a colour coded locker in their basement, and enter the Positron prison, while their ‘Alternates’ live their lives in what is also their home for the next month. In prison, Stan looks after chickens and Charmaine has a job cannot be discussed or even thought about.

Despite the relative comfort and security of living in Consilience, Stan and Charmaine’s marriage has become stale and they both become infatuated with their Alternates. As they become obsessed with their fantasies, the strangeness of their world starts to come out more in the story, and there is some really weird and unpleasant stuff going on. The people running the Positron Project are clearly making money from the town and prison and their business is nasty. The sexual fetishes are not for the faint-hearted either, although some of them are very funny. I’ll never look at a blue, knitted teddy bear in quite the same way ever again…

The story itself is funny too, in a very dark way.

I was so caught up in The Heart Goes Last that the train taking me home from work arrived at my station and I didn’t realise. Luckily, my station is the last one on the line, because I could have ended up anywhere. Next stop, Dystopia Meadows?

I can’t wait to read another book by Margaret Atwood. I am grateful that she is unafraid of what anybody else thinks about what goes on in her mind, and is happy to share her frightening but funny thoughts with readers.

 

 

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