Monday, 23 February 2009

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

DATE PUBLISHED: 1997 DATE READ: January 2009 (audiobook) NOTES: After being implicated in a brutal murder Grace Marks (aged 16) is sentenced to hang but this is commuted to life imprisonment – but her accomplice hangs. Grace recounts her story in a sardonic and at times ironic way. She claims to have no memory of the murder taking place although there is much circumstantial evidence of her participation. The truth of her story is never fully explained but she is revealed as a clever, hardworking girl desperate to love and be loved. There is a heartrending description of the boat journey from Ireland and her mother’s death and burial at sea. Grace chooses to have the body wrapped in the second best sheet – though this rational decision haunts her afterwards. Likewise she rationally takes the murdered Nancy’s clothes on the basis that she has no further need of them. Grace is continually let down by the men in her life. Her father is a drunkard and violent. Simon the doctor/psychologist leaves her suddenly (following his own weakness in seducing his landlady). Even young Jamie Walsh speaks against her at the trial having earlier professed his undying love for her. The memory of her first friend Mary Whitney shines throughout the book. Mary is funny, truculent and spirited and dies following an abortion which is horribly described. Grace’s hopes that Nancy will replace Mary are soon dashed – and Nancy’s lover Kinnear soon has designs on Grace (another man that lets her down). The book raises lots of issues on servant/master relationships, the penal system, memory and redemption. Attwood cleverly uses quiltmaking as a metaphor throughout the book. Just as the final pattern of a quilt depends on how the fragments are put together, Grace’s story depends on what she chooses to tell us. By the end we are left with no firm answers about Grace’s guilt but nonetheless come to admire her strength of spirit and her resolve to survive. A brilliant multi-layered classic!

Sunday, 22 February 2009

The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: January 2009 NOTES: Kate Grenville’s The Secret River is a brilliant book so I was really looking forward to her latest. The Lieutenant is set in the 1900s. Socially awkward Daniel Rooke (probably on the spectrum for autism) is from a humble background but is brilliant at mathematics. He becomes interested in astronomy and is encouraged by the Astronomer Royal. He joins the navy and travels to New South Wales with 1000 prisoners to set up a colony. His friend in the navy, Silk, is a would-be writer who sees all experiences as ‘copy’. Silk is outgoing and confident and quite different to the thoughtful Daniel. The book is extremely well researched – especially on the languages of the native people of Australia. She manages to convey some concepts through the eyes of the natives (such as the ‘justice’ of the white man whipping the thief). I liked the characters and the first part of the narrative. She is very sympathetic to the indigenous people and their part in the story is told sensitively. But the book seemed to come to an abrupt end which was not very satisfying. A pleasant read but ultimately disappointing, I am sorry to say.