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Rewarding but long
on 5 August 2014
Curious to try Atwood, I embarked upon Alias Grace for a bygone experience and treatment of people with mental health issues, and the book while not wholly satisfying did turn me into an Atwood fan. A borrowed-from-reality reconstruction of Grace Marks, an eponymous Canadian housemaid from mid-19th century who was tried for murder of her employer and accorded life imprisonment owing to her psychological infirmity and dubious evidence, Atwood's first victory is to immediately grab the reader's attention with a perceptive stream-of-consciousness of her titular heroine: her thoughts, reminisces, actions in punctuation-free, unhinged prose instantly brings her, her mental state and her world alive. Or atleast it gives a credible illusion of having a portal into her world. Almost at the same time another compelling main character is introduced, that of an earnest awaiting-his-big-break young psychiatrist ("psychiatrist" an anachronism: more likely called an "alienist"), who is assigned Grace as a patient with express purpose of unearthing evidence of her precise guilt and innocence. Will he be able to clear the fog over the extent of her implication by compassionate inquiry? Will she tell-all to a man willing to give her an ear? Does she suffer from a personality disorder, a version of amnesia or just gifted in confabulating?
And thus we have a terrific set-up of a perceptive, victimized narrator interacting with an intensely curious one: while one recounts the life and times as an emigre, as a house help shuttled between houses and institutions, vilified by the press and popular opinion, the other charts the dark seas of analysing the said and the unsaid, the observed and the unobserved while battling the calcified opinions of institutional authorities and rapturous attentions of other socially caged mortals of the opposite gender. Later authors like Faulks (Human Traces) and Miller (Pure) have constructed fabulous fictional accounts pivoting on eager, decent, theoretical young Enlightenment men given projects of uncertain promise and fame in the real world who go find themselves drowned in the uncharted seas of human malice and attachments. I must confess my weakness for these sympathetic, comical reader surrogates as one watches them sift through the perplexing world and Atwood rewards me with one more such character in Simon Jordan.
Her prose, free of anachronisms and over-officiousness (Eleanor Catton please note!), beats furiously with wit and warmth. She handles contrasting voices beautifully and juggles changing point of views, letters, newspaper snippets to create a chiaroscuro of perspectives that enthrall at first, but frustrate later. Sadly, for me the book's weaknesses draws from its strengths: the effusive protagonist turns out to be a mistress of evasiveness. Her voluminous interview testimonies which begin with free association and encompass minute details of everyday routines while satiating a reader's sociological curiosity, does not illuminate any more on the three hundredth page as on the first. This is, I feel, deliberate: saddled with an effusive patient, you empathise with the despairing doctor who is none the wiser and leaves the scene out of exhaustion and entanglement. As a reader you have the benefit of access to her unspoken thoughts and "real" moment-to-moment intentions, but you are none the wiser of her involvement in the murder as it slowly dawns on you how "unreliable" a narrator she is.
This deliberate opacity, the unmistifying smokes-and-mirrors, while admirably bringing to fore the grey areas of lawmaking, conviction and culpability in pre-forensics, pre-psychiatry era, can severely test even the most accommodating reader's patience beyond the half-way mark. There are some terrific side-shows, particularly the hilarious, homely mother character who rebukes and worries through letters and when she moves center-stage in the last part, it offers a welcome relief. But for all its triumphs, I felt that if it had been short by a hundred or so pages, that unsettling, uncomfortable feeling of unresolved crime would have dominated my impression more than the wearying length.