Grace Paperback – 14 Jan 2009
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"Grace" tells the story of Peterman, an inmate at Greenwood Walls secure hospital, whose dramatic escape leaves him seriously injured, lost in the snow. Half-delirious, he encounters an old woman and a young girl who live deep in the nearby forest. Peterman stays with them as he convalesces, and an extraordinary relationship develops between the three tragically damaged people, until circumstances propel Peterman and the Girl back to the harsh world of the city. For Peterman, the Girl represents all the love, trust and beauty that has been missing from his life - she represents his second, and last, chance. How could he possibly survive her loss and to what lengths will he go to prevent it? In luminous, lyrical prose, Alex Pheby has created a powerful tale of love, danger and madness, in a world on the fringes of reality. With the urgency of hyper-realism and the rich strangeness of a fairy tale, "Grace" is an unforgettable work of literary fiction.
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This dramatic opening to Grace, sets the scene for a mysterious and fantastic story, in which Alex Pheby explores themes of illusion against reality, crime against innocence and the question, is madness just a sane of coping with impossible circumstances?
Peterman finds refuge in the home of those who set the trap and finds himself cared for, but also perhaps held captive (or perhaps captivated) by an ancient woman and her foundling child. The relationship between the three develops through the telling of stories and a common rejection of the world "out there".
The book builds up to its inevitable climax, and readers are left to make their own decisions about whether Peterman is insane, or whether the medical and judicial systems have woven their own myths to classify him as a criminal insane.
I enjoyed this book and once I had started it found myself racing through it - always a good sign. It is a strange mixture of narrative and stories within stories. Pheby does not mind confusing his readers and leading them astray, and it takes an alert mind to keep up with the nuances. In an interview Pheby says,
"I use, for example, the form of the fairy tale to frame certain parts of the story and the conventions of the nineteenth century realist novel to frame others - the reader brings their own expectations of both these forms of writing (largely without realising it) and this can be very useful in subtly undermining or shoring up particular parts of the story".
In other words, the reader's head is definitely being messed with, but in quite a sophisticated way - and this is part of the fun of reading this very novel novel. Grace is a rewarding read which suggests that Pheby's works in progress will be worth waiting for.
Granny and the girl nurse Peterman back to health, and Peterman comes to love the girl as a daughter. Peterman's mind is perhaps not the most reliable indicator of events, so when the group becomes fractured the reader questions if the girl and the old woman ever existed. It's interesting that the only time Peterman is particularly convincing as a trustworthy witness is when he is in the company of these two women.
Grace struck me as a feminist text and ninety-nine-year-old Granny was undoubtedly my favourite character. There are stories within stories and Granny's transgressive tale of debauchery fascinated and engrossed me. Its tone was very different from the tone of the stories offered by Peterman and the girl and for me it was the most brilliant element of this novel. The novel's consideration of fatherhood and father-daughter love was possibly the most emotional element and it is woven throughout the book, right until the final line.
It took me a while to immerse myself in Grace's pages, and in order to do so I had to read the novel in total silence with no distractions, as otherwise I'd find my eye slipping down the page and I'd have to reread sections. However, when I gave it a hundred percent of my attention, I was captivated and delighted by the storytelling. This is vivid but risk-taking writing. The reader has work to do and not everybody will fancy the challenge that Grace offers. I was not able to dip in and out of this book, so I read it in two sittings, which was an intense but rewarding experience.
Events unfold in a weird and wonderful manner and even though the reader is never entirely sure what is in Peterman's mind and what is occurring independently of it, I found myself siding with Peterman's version of events, and I was far less convinced by the psychologist's theories. I imagine Grace would do very well on a university syllabus, because of the quality of writing, but also because Grace has so many layers that can be peeled back to reveal its hidden depths. There is a compelling surface story but there are counter stories running beneath, which makes Grace a novel that plays with the mind even after finishing it.
The descriptive passages are beautiful, characterisation is gloriously strange and whilst the plot is relatively small in its scale, it is not simple. When viewed as a whole the novel has a mesmorizing, unsettling quality that might be considered quite rare in this age of supposed `lowest common denominator' publishing.
By the time you get to the middle of the book you've had it - it's going to be a late night because you will have to get to the end - where, like me and the previous reviewer you will probably cry.
Powerful, original and with language which at times is just beautiful this book will have book groups across the land debating for hours as they try to unweave its many layers!
I have never bothered to review a book before but felt compelled. I'm still feeling its after effects.
Really glad I bought it - it's written brilliantly: pacy, exciting, but thought provoking and the end had me in tears.
I'd recommend it to anyone (although some of it is quite 'adult').
Definitely five stars.