Books: In the prison of male fantasy

Margaret Atwood's new novel is a Gothic tale of sex and class. By Carole Angier; Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, Bloomsbury, pounds 15.99
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Alias Grace is a first for Margaret Atwood. One of our richest imaginers of the present and future has written a novel set in the past, and based on a real historical case. But what a case! The cool and demure face on the cover conceals and misleads, like the voice of Grace inside. Behind them lurks a lush and bloody tale of sex and class, madness and murder.

Atwood sums up the real story in an Afterword. In Ontario in 1843, Grace Marks, a servant girl aged 16, was found guilty of the murders of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Grace's accomplice James McDermott was hanged; she was given a life sentence, and spent 30 years in Kingston Penitentiary. In 1872, after many petitions in her favour, she was granted a pardon and set free.

The case attracted the journalists of the time for the same reasons that it attracts Atwood now - except that it is the reasons themselves that fascinate her. Nancy Montgomery was Kinnear's mistress and pregnant with his child. Grace Marks was very young and very pretty. Everyone thought she was McDermott's lover; and either his victim, or else the instigator of the murders, driven by love for Kinnear and jealousy of Nancy. What became of her, and whether she was really innocent or guilty, mad or sane, are unknown. This is an Atwood-shaped space, a perfect case for her concerns: women as the objects of men's lusts and fears, and the connections between sexual and political exploitation.

The story unfolds through letters, poems and contemporary accounts, but mostly through two narratives: one telling what happens to Simon Jordan, a young practitioner of the new science of the mind, as he examines Grace; and Grace's telling of her own story, as she answers (or evades) his questions.

Grace's narrative is the feminist thesis of this novel, a second Handmaid's Tale. When Simon first meets her, he imagines a maiden in a towered dungeon, a mad, wide-eyed, shivering girl; then she steps into the light, and he sees a self-possessed woman. This is the key to her story, which is about the way men project their sexual desires and fears onto women, and call them mad and evil.

But Margaret Atwood has moved beyond The Handmaid's Tale, to Cat's Eye and The Robber Bride, which see cruelty and treachery in women too. And that is where they are in the anti-feminist antithesis of Simon's narrative: in his crazy, clinging landlady and his silly, match-making mother, both of whom wrap him in the coils of their self-abasement, "like being fawned on by rabbits, or covered with syrup."

The truth seems to be that if men project their fantasies on women, so do women project theirs on men; and in the end the women win. Grace Marks survives the projections of a nation, and escapes to marriage and freedom. But poor Simon is cut down by a cruel irony: sex brings him as close as it brought Grace to madness and murder, and he ends as she began, an amnesiac prisoner. He reminds one of poor Rochester, stuck sightless and single- handed with Jane Eyre.

But the main question is, of course, did Grace do it? And here Atwood's answer seems to me distinctly peculiar. Grace's alienation begins when her doughty friend Mary Whitney dies; and at the climax of the novel, the voice in which she finally remembers the murders is Mary Whitney's. Simon's fledgling scientific explanation is of multiple personality; but the novel's own suggestion is a much older idea. Indeed it favours several spooky pre-scientific notions, such as fate, telepathy and clairvoyance.

Grace is afraid of the doctor, "with his bagful of shining knives"; and the most baleful image of the book is the cutting open, for sex or for knowledge, of the human (usually female) body and mind. Altogether I suspect that Simon's sad ending is Atwood's punishment, not of men but of 20th century science.

Did I enjoy this, and Grace's happy ending, and the novel as a whole? I admired it; but no, I didn't really enjoy it. Ever since Cat's Eye, Margaret Atwood's novels have been getting too long. And I couldn't quite believe in the very good characters, like Jeremiah, or the very bad ones, like Simon's Gothic landlady. But that is what Alias Grace is: a Gothic fairy tale. It's certainly not very like Ontario.

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