‘Cat’s Eye’ by Margaret Atwood

catseyeFew authors can write about the everyday merged with significant life events in such an erudite, engaging manner as Canadian Margaret Atwood.

Successful painter Elaine Risley, on returning to Toronto for the first time in many years to attend a major retrospective of her work, reflects on her post-war childhood. But this is no nostalgic trip down memory lane. The fact is that I hate this city. I’ve hated it so long I can hardly remember feeling any other way about it…. I live [now] in British Columbia, which is as far away from Toronto as I could get without drowning.

Bitter memories crowd her thoughts as a peripatetic childhood travelling round Canada with her parents and brother comes to an end as the family move into a new Toronto suburb. Risley senior, an entomologist, has given up researching various bugs in their natural habitat and accepted a lecturing position.

New home, new school for the Risley kids. And Elaine suddenly discovers what’s defined as normal behaviour for a young suburban eight year-old girl. But a year of being best friends with Grace and Carol changes with the arrival of Cordelia.

The dynamics of the group shifts – in her innocence and lack of awareness of the ‘rules’, Elaine does not recognise the cruelty of the three. A psychological pattern of behaviour is established that is to profoundly affect her perceptions of relationships and her world. It is only years later that Elaine is able to come to terms with a level of understanding – and much of this understanding is achieved through her art. But even now, on her return to Toronto, Elaine still hopes (and partially needs) to see Cordelia and gain her approval – in spite of the fact it has been twenty/thirty or so years since the two ‘friends’ last met. “She wants to help me, they all do. They are my friends… I have never had any before and I’m terrified of losing them. I want to please.” But this mourning for her past – including contact with John, her first husband – wandering the changed city streets provides a level of closure.

Interestingly, for a story that revolves around the psychological bullying and mental abuse of a young girl, the unfolding of these events takes up a remarkably short part of Atwood’s novel. But it is the long-term impact that is explored. Years later, Elaine’s mother voices recognition of the cruelty of her friends, although she identifies Carol as the main perpetrator.

Cat’s Eye is a profoundly moving, exquisite character study, tender in the ebb and flow of its memories. Moderately happy, there is an air of melancholia around Elaine, although even she herself identifies that she is not always the victim. “It disturbs me to learn I have hurt someone unintentionally. I want all my hurts to be intentional.”

Margaret Atwood’s seventh novel (it followed The Handmaid’s Tale), Cat’s Eye was shortlisted for the 1989 Booker Prize but lost out to Kazuo Ishiguro and The Remains of the Day.

 

 

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‘Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel

lifeofpiA young teenager afloat the Pacific Ocean in a 26-foot long boat with only a Bengal tiger for company: Piscine Molitor ‘Pi’ Patel, late of Pondicherry in Southern India, the only human survivor of the shipwreck of a cargo boat travelling to Canada.

Having sold the family zoo, the Patels are fleeing the corruption of India for a better life in the frozen wastes of North America. Aboard are a few of the animals bound for American institutions. Only they do not make it. A storm two days out of Manila sees the boat sink – and Pi along with an injured zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena and Richard Parker, the tiger, survive.

But not for long. Hyena soon dispatches the zebra, quickly followed by the orang-utan. But Richard Parker dispenses with the hyena. Now tiger and boy establish an uneasy routine for survival.

Life of Pi is told in three sections (and precisely 100 ‘chapters’) with the middle section by far the longest and which details the extraordinary journey of 227 days aboard the lifeboat. It’s rich in explanation of Pi’s survival techniques and his gradual training of the tiger to enable the two to reach an uneasy truce.

Such a story inevitably pushes the boundaries of believability. But then Life of Pi is full of metaphor and symbolism. Born into a Hindu family, the intelligent and curious Pi adds Catholicism and Islam to his beliefs, seeking out answers to his questions of faith in Pondicherry prior to the family’s departure.

“A germ of religious exaltation, no bigger than a mustard seed, was sown in me and left to germinate. It has never stopped growing since that day.”

Through him, Yann Martel finds harmonious common ground in the three religions. Through his fantasy adventure novel, Martel looks to encourage belief in the unbelievable – one of the major hurdles to faith and believing in God.

But an alternative is provided by Pi in the third and final section of the novel – the ‘human answer’ he gives to officials from the Japanese shipping agents, owners of the cargo boat. Pi’s mother becomes the orang-utan, an injured seaman the zebra, the crazed cook from the boat the hyena. Pi himself is Richard Parker.

The ‘truth’ of Pi’s story is of little concern – the issue is the reader’s preference. Interpretation is, of course, subjective and its intention here is theological reflection. Do you need concrete proof or can you take things on faith?

‘Everything was normal and then…?’

‘Normal sank.’

Life of Pi is unquestionably overwritten at times – the first section in particular left me frequently impatient with its descriptions and long-windedness. But, theological symbolism aside, life aboard the lifeboat is fascinating and engaging reading. And, oddly, verging on believable. There are a couple of significant exceptions – the floating island of acidic algae populated by millions of meerkats and meeting the alter ego, also adrift. But by then Pi had been alone for some 200 days so an element of madness is excusable (although these incidents did feel like excuses for Pi to descend into paroxysms of theological wonder and divinity. From the outset we are told that this is a story that will make you believe in God).

That particular objective failed to materialise in me personally but as a yarn set on the high seas, with the exception of that tendency to overwrite and slip into philosophical and theological musings, Life of Pi is an engaging read.

Yann Martel’s second published novel was awarded the 2002 Booker Prize.

‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry

61yx2cz9dml-_sl1231_-1In my mind, one of the finest novels ever written – a sensitive, humane yet deeply political commentary on the India of the 1970s during the government-declared State of Emergency along with the accompanying levels of corruption and abuses of power. Sobering, devastating yet deeply haunting, A Fine Balance may be a fiction, but it’s not made up.

Central to Mistry’s narrative are four individuals whose lives become deeply entwined, all poor and surviving (just) on the edges. It is through Dina, Maneck Ishvar and his nephew, Om, in both their current connected lives and separate backstories that the panoramic sweep of the decade moves forward.

Their histories are all tragic yet seemingly commonplace in a desperately poor country of close on half a billion people.

Having escaped her overbearing and expectant brother and married for love, Dina finds herself widowed after just three years. Only the common sense of retaining the tiny, dingy, rent-controlled apartment in central Bombay prevents her from returning to a life of benevolent slavery to Nawaz, his wife and two young sons.

Struggling financially over the years, she takes to renting out her bedroom to Maneck, a student and son of a former school friend. His family has fallen on hard times. Living in the Himalayan foothills, owning extensive lands, the stroke of a British colonial pen placed the family holdings on the wrong side of a border. Only the General Store remains. The advent of tarmacked new roads, tourism and multinationals are the death-knell for small family-run businesses: his father pushes Maneck into looking beyond the shop for his future.

But the saddest histories belong to Ishvar and Om, victims of a caste system deeply rooted in social inequity and injustice. Untouchables in their village, the two are forced into a life of destitution following the public murder of their extended family at the hands of the local head honcho.

The four become unlikely companions and friends as they eventually find themselves living in the Bombay flat.

Initially, Dina employs Ishvar and Om as tailors. But their frequent unexplained absences make her suspicious of their commitment and motivation: it’s only a quiet word here and there from Maneck that balances her sentiment and prejudice. Yet it is in these moments of ‘absence’ that the true horrors of the State of Emergency are revealed – the rounding up of beggars and enforced slave labour schemes, the demolition of shantytowns through the Beautification Scheme, the rampant corruption at all levels. And it is those at that bottom that suffer every time.

Ishvar and Om are constant victims – they lose their mud and corrugated iron shantytown home: they’re forced to attend a prime ministerial rally with hundreds of thousands of others on the edge of town: they find themselves enslaved in a quarry for ‘food’ and lodging. They have no choices – the two are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. They’re two of the millions born poor and therefore voiceless.

Yet, at times, in spite of the trials and travails, the four also manage to find some happiness. It takes a while in coming – similar in age, Maneck and Om become firm friends: Ishvar is a benevolent, indulgent uncle. A panicked Dina, desperate to avoid turning to her brother, is the thorn in the side. But her loneliness and exposure to others’ sufferings soften Dina’s attitude towards her employees.

But the horrors of injustice are never far away and A Fine Balance is full of apprehension – nothing good lasts forever (or, here, for very long). The narrative continues unabated.

Names may not be named (even Bombay is only ever referred to as the City by the Sea) but the corruption of Indira Gandhi’s power-hungry regime and the inexplicable actions carried out in her name are captured in Mistry’s second novel. It’s 600 plus pages of the ugliness of human behaviour when power is presented or provided. But it’s also 600 pages of a deeply humane story of enduring and surviving, living or dying, of human endurance. A fine balance. And one of the finest novels ever written.

Inexplicably, whilst shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize, it lost out to Graham Swift’s good but not as memorable Last Orders.  

‘The Blind Assassin’ by Margaret Atwood

blindWhilst Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize winning The Blind Assassin is (inevitably) beautifully written, it is, personally, one of her least interesting novels.

Set in Canada in the present day, octogenarian Iris Chase narrates a story that spans the twentieth century. Down-at-heel in a small condo in a tourist town in Southern Ontario, Iris slowly reveals events that, from a once privileged position of family wealth and power, led to her downfall.

Married off to save the family business at a young age, the suicide of her sister Laura in 1945, an arrogant older husband with political ambitions supported by his manipulative and interfering sister, Winifred. In spite of being surrounded all her young life by wealth, Iris is not in a happy place, very much the gender victim of the conservative times.

Ostensibly, The Blind Assassin is the story of the two sisters and their relationships with two men at either end of the political spectrum. A trophy wife to the patriarchal bully with fascist leanings that is Richard Griffen, Iris is trapped in a loveless marriage. Alex Thomas is a communist agitator wanted in connection to the fire at the Chase button factory and the death of a night watchman. Laura is infatuated with the political activist – but it is Iris who has a long-standing love affair with him.

Within their story is the novel within the novel – Thomas entertains his lover with stories of Planet Zycron, written for the pulp magazines from which he survives financially (writing under an assumed name).

Iris ups and leaves Griffen with newborn baby in tow having discovered he had been sexually abusing a 16 year-old Laura. A less privileged life is on the cards, but at least she will be with the man she loves. Bad timing – having returned from the Spanish Civil War, Alex Thomas volunteers for the war in Europe. He does not return and never knows his daughter, Aimee.

Forty years later, Iris looks back on this early time in her life (time between now and then is written off in a paragraph or two). It’s a resigned memory – a little bitter (mainly towards a still living Winifred), a little angry (her powerlessness within her own home as a newly-wed), a little sad (the death of Aimee from substance and alcohol abuse). But there’s undoubtedly a level of relief, having escaped the suffocating life destined by her marriage to a political climber.

There are, in my mind, a number of issues with The Blind Assassin but the main problem is its length – a judicious editor should have cut from 630+ pages to 350 or so. A tight, well-told family melodrama would have resulted. Instead, we have a rambling family melodrama populated with unlikeable characters and a (bad) sci-fi/fantasy theme running through it.

Final result was that, in essence, The Blind Assassin bored me. There were several occasions when I came close to giving up. But I persevered…

Margaret Atwood collected her only Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin in 2000. Having received mixed reviews on publication, it was not the favourite to win – Trezza Azzopardi (The Hiding Place) and Michael Collins (The Keepers of Truth) were joint favourites to win.

 

 

‘The English Patient’ by Michael Ondaatje

english-patient-michael-ondaatjeSweeping vistas of the African Sahara desert spring to mind when approaching the reading of Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 Booker Prize winner – the result of the Oscar-winning film adaptation of the same name with its focus on the love story between the ‘English patient’ and the newly-wed British socialite, Katharine Clifton.

Whilst a central story running throughout the book is the 1930s desert surveys of the Egyptian Sahara, it is only one part of Ondaatje’s poetic contemplation of the nature of identity. The English Patient is the profound yet fragmented story of four disparate characters caught up in a wrecked Italian villa at the close of World War II.

Having being rescued from a burning plane by Saharan Bedouins, the English patient is burnt beyond recognition. From his accent, he is assumed to be English and has therefore found himself transferred from various makeshift hospitals that are each closer to home. A former monastery, the Villa San Girolamo on the outskirts of Florence is the latest resting place. A refuge now abandoned by the Allies, a young Canadian nurse, Hana, insists on staying with her patient too sick to move.

The two have eked out their survival in the badly damaged building, the patient confined to his bed with a regular dosage of morphine: Hana reading to him, finding food and avoiding snipers and booby traps installed by the retreating Germans. With her own burgeoning sexual awareness, Hana inevitably develops a close attachment to her patient, a purity of love in part based on the loss of her own father in the campaign.

Into the villa walks David Caravaggio; a thief legitimised by the Allies as a wartime spy, he is a former friend of Hana’s father. The result of a violent interrogation by Italian fascists has seen both his thumbs being removed and he is now reduced, like the English patient, to a morphine addiction.

The fourth character, Kirpal ‘Kip’ Singh, is an Indian Sikh who volunteered with the British for sapper bomb disposal training. He is sent in advance of British forces in Italy to clear mines, booby traps and unexploded bombs. Basing himself at the villa, Kip develops a close affinity to the English patient but he also becomes Hana’s (discrete) lover.

We learn, incrementally, of each of the four’s histories. Whilst the English patient and the slow discovery of his true identity is key to the novel, each has their own story to tell or hide.

The English patient is not English at all, but Hungarian (Count Ladislaus de Almasy) and a suspected German spy with Caravaggio on his trail for some time. Kip has, in part, become very English. On arriving in the UK for military service, he was ‘adopted’ by the late Lord Suffolk, the head of the fledgling bomb disposal unit, and found himself a frequent guest of the aristocrat and his wife at their home. Yet Kip’s brother is an active revolutionary against British rule back in India.

All four are wounded souls. The English Patient is a web of memories and it unfolds in a series of non-linear storylines and narratives. As with the books that Hana reads to her patient when she randomly opens to a page, meaning seemingly matters little. It’s the shared moment that is of import – and The English Patient is not dissimilar. It’s a journey that meanders without a foreseeable ending.

And it’s that unfocussed meandering that, for me, is the problem with The English Patient. I do not need a beginning, middle and an end – but I need more than what felt like literary gymnastics to extend its melancholic story. Lyrical it may be; poetic prose as an exercise has appeal. But spread over 320 pages it was too much. Its imbued with Boys Own adventure potential. And as a result Caravaggio and Kip are the most interesting characters in The English Patient. Yet somehow I do not think that was supposed to be the case.

The English Patient shared the 1992 Booker Prize with Barry Unsworth and Sacred Hunger – the second time it has occurred (1974 with Nadine Gordimer’s The Conversationist tying with Holiday by Stanly Middleton the other occasion). It is reported the judges were bitterly and passionately divided between the books: the decision to jointly award the Booker was made just 30 minutes before the announcing ceremony.

‘Such a Long Journey’ by Rohinton Mistry

15sena3Eloquent and assured, after a slow start Such a Long Journey develops into a riveting narrative set in 1971 Bombay on the eve of the Indian-Pakistan war and the birth of an independent Bangladesh.

A gifted storyteller, Mistry focuses on ordinary people, introducing a gamut of characters centred round the Noble family and residents of the down-at-heel Khododad Building.

Patriarch Gustad, as his surname suggests, is a respected, upright, devoted father of three working at a local bank as a clerk. From a family of bankrupted wealth, educated Gustad is the man of reason amidst his neighbours and work colleagues. But he unwittingly becomes involved in fraud and dangerous political machinations when he receives a letter from an old friend.

Layers of story and symbolism, philosophy and political gossip, theology and superstition are woven together as Gustad works to keep his family out of the poverty trap and understand the potential repercussions of helping Major Jimmy ‘Billiboy’ Billimoria. But he is also dealing with the everyday politics of living in the compound, the unexplained illness of his 8 year-old daughter, Roshan, and the refusal by his eldest, Sohrab, to attend the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology. As the rift between father and son widens, so Gustad’s wife Dilvanez turns to the help of old Miss Kutpitia and her remedies of lizards’ tails, toe nails and chillis.

Rich in detail, Such a Long Journey dwells momentarily on the poverty of Bombay neighbourhoods – the overcrowding, open sewers, fetid garbage, a chronic shortage of freshwater – before moving on to the corruption of the Indira Gandhi government or the cost of visiting a local GP. And always seen from the perspective of ‘everyman’ – primarily Gustad or his friend and bank colleague, Dinshawji: Such a Long Journey is a commentary, not an overtly political preach or exposition.

It’s a beautifully written amble of a journey, compelling in its telling, intricate in its composition. Like Gustad’s overnight train journey from Bombay to New Delhi, Such a Long Journey is crowded, full of energy with unexpected twists and turns which, quite simply, need to be dealt with.

There is an air of overhanging melancholia, a sense of powerlessness for the ordinary person in the street – whether it be a damning indictment of the Indira government and American foreign policy or the demolition of the wall protecting the Khododad compound by the local Municipality. But there’s also a sense of hope – the independence of Bangladesh, Miss Kutpitia finally free of her past.

Yet, ultimately, Such a Long Journey is Gustad’s journey. He loses Billimoria and Dinshawji, but he learns a great deal about himself and his family becomes stronger. And as a result, he becomes stronger.

His debut novel, Rohinton Mistry was shortlisted for the 1991 Booker Prize but Such a Long Journey lost out to Ben Okri and The Famished Road.

‘The Stone Diaries’ by Carol Shields

1857022254.01.LZZZZZZZThe Stone Diaries is another of the Booker Prize novels that, having first read it, has lain dormant on my bookshelf for more than 20 years. It is a fictionalised autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett, an ordinary woman born in Manitoba, Canada in 1905 who drifts through life until her death in Florida more than 80 years later.

Daisy’s entry into this world is dramatic – her obese mother dying on the kitchen floor unaware that she is pregnant. And, whilst by most standards the rest of her life is relatively uneventful (if comfortable), Daisy’s birth is far from her last major drama – the death of her aunt and guardian killed by a speeding bicycle; her first husband, drunk, falling out of a hotel window in Europe whilst the couple are on their honeymoon.

Yet, by the time of her death in a Sarasota nursing home, Daisy is unquestionably dissatisfied, unable as she has been, to find a true sense of place for herself. A second marriage, three children, numerous grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins have all been part of the previous 40 years – yet still ‘something’ was missing.

Not that Daisy overly dwells on that missing something (or anything else, for that matter). The Stone Diaries is Daisy as witness to her own life, a passive observer to unfolding events. And it is this emotional distancing that is the strength and weakness of Carol Shields’ critically most successful novel.

As a commentary of an ordinary, white middle-class life in North America in the twentieth century, The Stone Diaries is as wholesome as apple pie.

Daisy’s father, Cuyler, through hard work, becomes a successful businessman having moved from Canada to Bloomington, Indiana with his teenage daughter. The death of her husband sees Daisy back in Canada and avoiding the 1929 Wall Street crash that wipes out the finances of her wealthy in-laws. Married to an academic 20 years her senior, Daisy raises three children and a large garden in a many-storeyed, rambling, shambolic Ottawa home. Mrs Green Thumb becomes a successful gardening columnist with a local newspaper following the death of her husband before selling the family home to move into a Florida condo. With her children (and grandchildren) spread around North America and England, Daisy choses to spend her dotage in the world of pink rinses, turquoise pants suits and with friends she made as a teenager in Indiana.

And that ordinary life is about it. Shields, thankfully, avoids presenting that ordinary life as a series of episodic events. The narrative evolves in the present and retrospectively (we’re first introduced to Daisy’s children when Alice, the eldest, is already nine).

But the presentation does err on the flat, matter-of-fact delivery and with very little external influences of the wider world (World War II is mentioned in relation to the birth of the children, no national or global politics feature). Like Daisy looking on, we are voyeurs on a life full of incident but which adds up to not a lot.

A dual Canadian/American citizen, Carol Shields is the only author to have won both the (Canadian) Governor General’s Award for English language fiction and the (American) Pullitzer Prize. But, in spite of The Stone Diaries being shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it lost out to Paddy Clarke’s significantly inferior Paddy Ha Ha Ha.

‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue

room-iiTo five-year-old Jack, his entire world measures approximately 12 feet x 12 feet. To him, it’s home. To his Ma, it’s a prison, kidnapped as she was seven years earlier. Born in captivity, Jack knows no different as Ma teaches him to play, learn, eat and sleep within the confines of the ‘room’.

Ma (we never learn her real name), through ingenuity and the need to keep herself sane, has created an almost playful environment for her son. And it is Jack in a box who narrates the story – we see his world through his eyes and his perspective.

Constantly reading the same five books or playing the same games is generally fun for the boy, the make believe of the TV planet provides endless fascination (or at least would do if Ma did not restrict viewing to one hour a day). Even sleeping in the wardrobe when Old Nick (their captor) turns up provides a sense of adventure.

Room is written from Jack’s perspective and understanding. But what is also apparent is Ma’s slow disintegration. This may be the only thing Jack knows, but Ma was a 19 year-old student when she was abducted.

So, not long after he turns five, Ma plans their escape.

Room is a book that has polarised opinion. On first reading (and knowing nothing about it), the book had, initially, a fairly strong emotional punch that slowly faded away as the book progressed. Jack’s expressions and takes on the things around him start to become too cutesy and pat.

On second reading, there’s no emotional punch, with the second half of the book losing all sense of urgency. It becomes formulaic. Like the toy, wind it up and you know Jack pops out of the box – as long as the batteries aren’t dead.

Emma Donoghue’s novel was favourite to collect the Man Booker Prize in 2010 but instead lost out to Howard Jacobson and The Finkler Question (in my opinion, the right call).

 

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood

handmaidsI received something of a shock on reading this. A yellow-tinged paperback that’s been on my bookshelf for close on 30 years – and I discovered that in spite of assumptions on my part, I’d never actually read it! So that’s now been redressed.

A dystopian future where religious fundamentalism has destroyed the infrastructure of the US – or at least a part. But Atwood writes not about jihads or intifadas. Instead, the Republic of Gilead and all its repressive might appears to have come about as a result of sectarian Christian wars and the declaration of a State of Emergency following the assassination of the President and most of Congress.

A totalitarian patriarchal theocracy is now in place – and, in Gilead, the bodies of women are controlled for political purposes. Reported nuclear and chemical spillage has resulted in increased sterility: birth and children of the future are paramount. As a handmaid, Offred, our narrator, has one function: to breed.

Offred is provided for – shelter, food. But, like all women in Gilead, she is denied access to reading material, conversation, personal items, love, hope. Bored, she inevitably slips back into memories – of her partner, Luke, and her daughter – of the time before marshall law. But she also observes the present – the suspension of civil rights, the executions of undesirables (pro-abortionists, Quakers), the everyday lives of women (and men) reduced to impersonal roles ‘for the greater good.’

The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985 during the Reagan era of ‘old values’, conservatism and the genesis of the Christian right as a political force. At the same time, relations with the Soviet Union were at a dangerous low, people were panicked by HIV/AIDS, nuclear power and the rise of a militant Islam.

Cold and matter of fact in style and language, Attwood’s novel is compelling yet prophetically terrifying.

Shortlisted for the 1986 Booker Prize, The Handmaid’s Tale lost out to Kingsley Amis and The Old Devils.

‘Alias Grace’ by Margaret Atwood

aliasgraceBased on a true story, Alias Grace is an enthralling if somewhat overlong historical fiction.

In 1843, in a remote Canadian home an arduous 16 miles outside Toronto, James McDermott murdered his master, Thomas Kinnear, and the young housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in cold blood. But just how much active a part of the slayings was the 15 year-old maid, Grace Marks?

Both were captured in flight across the border in the United States with McDermott quickly tried and executed for the murders. But what of Grace? Was she the young lover of Thomas who egged him on as he claimed? Or was she a naïve innocent victim? The trial placed her somewhere between the two – found guilty but with the death penalty commuted to life imprisonment due to her impressionable age.

Grace was to spend some 30 years imprisoned in the penitentiary or, for a short period early in her sentence, the lunatic asylum. Introducing (the fictional) Dr Simon Jordan and the nascent science of psychiatry some 10 years into her sentence, Atwood gives Grace voice to tell her story. Or is it?

The beauty of Alias Grace is that it’s never clear as to what we can believe about her tale. Atwood acknowledged that she weaves truth and fiction liberally – but even within the fictional elements of the true story, is Grace a reliable or unreliable narrator? She admits telling the doctor what she thinks he wants to hear, but Atwood adopts a style that leaves us unsure as to whether the narrative is spoken or thought.

Encouraged by Jordan, leaving Ireland for a better life with her family is where Grace starts her story. The three years leading up to the tragic events at the Kinnear household is a highly detailed narrative – a drunken father, a mother who dies mid-Atlantic, a life in-service as maid. It is of particular fascination to the doctor who is trying to balance Grace’s claims of remembering nothing of the murders and her apparent role with this minutia of recall.

It is the struggle for truth that is at the core of Alias Grace. Is Grace as cunning as the newspapers have painted her? Or is she a victim of misunderstanding? The gaps in Grace’s memory are filled with reports from others – McDermott in his testimony, witnesses. She challenges them without knowing what actually happened. Scientifically, Jordan cannot grasp any understanding – changes were going on in the study of the subconscious, somnambulism, hysteria, amnesia and ‘nervous diseases’ but it is early days. Spiritualism, mesmerism (even a few digs at the Methodist Church) all come under the auspices of searching for a truth. Jordan can but speculate.

As do we as to what happened. We are left to draw our own conclusions. Hypocrisy and duplicity are rampant (Jordan’s own affair with his landlady a marked parallel to that of the relationship between Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery) and Atwood certainly follows a subtle but overt feminist line. Attitudes towards Grace reflect the ambiguity about the nature of women – the female fiend and temptress being the real perpetrator of the murders or an unwilling victim. And no single male comes out of Alias Grace in a positive light – except maybe Jeremiah, the pedlar who is an outsider himself. But even he subverts the search for a truth.

Like the quilts that are a prominent reference throughout the narrative, Alias Grace is woven patchwork of a tale. It does suffer from chronic longwindedness at times and the ending, bought about very quickly considering the details of what came earlier, is somewhat pat and contrived. But it’s nevertheless wholly engaging and fascinating.

Shortlisted for the 1996 Man Booker Prize, it lost out to Graham Swift and Last Orders.