A new novel by Margaret Atwood will sell, and be discussed, regardless of its critical reception and, one suspects, largely regardless of the book itself. Such are the wages of fame. And while I am certain that Atwood is incapable by this point of writing a bad novel, I am equally certain that her latest is not a success.
Atwood’s prose has always had the control and depth the discouraging majority of novels very conspicuously lack. From her first novel, she has repeatedly demonstrated remarkable control over every aspect of her narrative. An item she’d lightly drop on page 70 would be picked up again with consummate grace on page 170, notice to the reader that there is a creator at work, and that nothing in her world happens without purpose. The depth is produced, often, by the narrations of characters like Marian in The Edible Woman, or Grace in Alias Grace, characters with whom the author and the tale are in only partial sympathy, forcing the stories to be read both through and against the primary narrative perspectives.
Among Canadian writers, Atwood is a virtuoso. Her control and her success stem largely from her broad, arching intelligence, an intelligence as evident in her conversation and actions as in her writing.
But you already knew that. The problem lies elsewhere.
There is, in Alias Grace, much subtlety, many layers, and a great and poignant reflection of the author; there is, throughout the book, a great intelligence. But virtuosity, as Eudora Welty once said, unless it move the heart, goes to the head of the whole parade to dust.
This book, for all its qualities, for all the interest it will undoubtedly (and justifiably) arouse in colleges and universities across the country, is not an engaging, nor a very enjoyable read. Atwood has chosen to write it entirely in thorough reconstructions of 1840s prose styles (in the form of letters, conversation, transcribed thought, and legal documents), achieving, with probable intent, a great cavernous distance between the reader and the characters. Which fits in quite well with the notion, underlying the narrative, that Grace Marks, the ambiguously convicted murderess Atwood’s chosen to fictionalize here for the second time, has been robbed of any stable identity or idea of truth she may ever have possessed. But alienation is a precarious fictional tool, and these two distancing techniques, both in style and in content, end up in Alias Grace forging too great a distance for the book to be enjoyed on its own merits. Which frankly, given this author’s accomplishments, is surprising.
A book to be added to the canon, then, certainly, but not, I would suggest, to very many personal bookshelves.