Reading “Alias Grace” before the TV series begins | Review of “Alias Grace” by Margaret Atwood (1996) McClelland & Stewart

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Fans of Margaret Atwood were glued to the television sets last spring as her novel The Handmaid’s Tale came to life from her famous book. Now, in a few weeks, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation will be airing another series based on one of her works, so it is only fitting that one should read (or re-read) Alias Grace with equal zeal.

Page 23

Sometimes when I dusting the mirror with the grapes I look at myself in it, although I know it is vanity. In the afternoon light of the parlour my skin is a pale mauve, like a faded bruise, and my teeth are greenish. I think of all the things written about me – that I am an inhuman female demon, that I am an innocent victim of a blackguard forced against my will and in danger of my own life, that I was too ignorant to know how to act and that to hang me would be judicial murder, that I am fond of animals, that I am very handsome with a brilliant complexion, that I have blue eyes, that I have green eyes, that I have auburn and also brown hair, that I am tall and also not above the average height, that I am well and decently dressed, that I robbed a dead woman to appear so, that I am brisk and smart about my work, that I am of a sullen disposition with a quarrelsome temper, that I have the appearance of a person rather above my humble station, that I am a good girl with a pliable nature and no harm is told of me, that I am cunning and devious, that I am soft in the head and little better than an idiot. And I wonder, how can I be all of these different things at once?

Atwood gave us readers a vivid lesson to ponder over when she pulled the story of Grace Marks from the dusty history books and created this brilliant piece of literature. Marks had been imprisoned in the 19th Century for the murder of her employer and his housekeeper/mistress. While the public at the time is looking at her with either pity or enraged at her actions, a Dr. Simon Jordan comes up to examine her and her mental state. It is their interactions that Atwood brilliantly moves the plot of the book through and gives us vivid descriptions to reflect and ponder over.

Pages 120-121

I did not cry. I felt as if it was me and not my mother that had died; and I sat if paralysed, and did not know what to do next. But Mrs. Phelan said we could not leave her lying there, and I did have a white sheet for her to be buried in. And then I began to worry terribly, because all we had was the three sheets. There were two old ones that had been worn through and then cut in tow and turned, and also the one sheet given to us by Aunt Pauline; and I did not know which to use. It seemed like disrespect to use an old one, but if I used the new one it would go to waste as far as the living were concerned: and all my grief became concentrated, so to speak, on the matter of the sheets. And finally I asked myself what my mother would prefer, and since she’d always placed herself second best in life, I decided on the old one; and at least it was more or less clean.

The Captain having been notified, two sailors came to carry my mother up onto the deck; and Mrs. Phelan cam up with me, and we arranged her, with her eyes closed and her pretty hair down, because, Mrs. Phelan said a body should not be buried with the hair knotted. I left her in the same clothes she had on, except for the shoes. I kept back the shoes, and her shawl as well, which she would have no need of. She looked pale and delicate, like a spring flower, and the children stood around crying; and I had each one of them kiss her on the forehead, which I wouldn’t have done if I thought she’d died of anything catching. And one of the sailors, who was an expert at such things, tucked the sheet around her very neatly, and sewed it up tight, with a length of old iron chain at the feet, to make her sink. I had forgotten to cut off a lock of her hair to keep, as I should have done; but I was too confused to remember it.

As soon as the sheet was over her face I had the notion that it was not really my mother under there, it was some other  woman; or that my mother had changed, and if I was to take away the sheet now, she would be someone else entirely. It must have been the shock of it that put such things into my head.

This story is enlightening and Atwood – true to her literary form – is vivid and descriptive. Considering the previous works of the people that are involved in bring this book to television (Sarah Polley, Mary Harron, Anna Paquin, Paul Gross) this productions should be a great watch. But book fans and readers should review the book first.

Page 186

Down the driveway to the left comes Grace herself, walking with her head lowered, flanked by two unsavoury-looking men he supposes to be prison guards. They’re leaning very close to her, as if she’s no murderess, but a precious treasure to be kept safe. He doesn’t like the way they press up against her; but of course their lives would be very difficult if she were to escape. Although he’s always known that she’s taken back every evening and locked into a narrow cell, today it strikes him as incongruous. They’ve been talking together all afternoon as if in a parlour; and now he is free as air and may do whatever he likes, while she must be bolted and barred. Caged in a dreary prison. Deliberately dreary, for if a prison were not dreary, where would be the punishment?

Margaret Atwood certainly gave us reader an enlightening book filled with vivid descriptions with Alias Grace. And the upcoming mini series based on that book should be a enlightening experience to view.

*****

Link to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s website for the TV production of Alias Grace airing on Sept. 25, 2017

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s website for the book Alias Grace

Link to Margaret Atwood’s website

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