The Witch Elm

By Tana French

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

Things have been going well at work lately.

I had a particularly good week – good stuff with the team, good experimental results. It was a great week, actually, which is why I was surprised when I found myself having what felt like a minor panic attack yesterday.

It was puzzling – I am not prone to them, and I have nothing to be anxious about (or, at least, nothing to be acutely anxious about this week – the world is burning, but it has been for a while, I’ve acclimated). But even though everything was going well, I walked around all week with an uncomfortable tightness between my lungs, as though a balloon had been inflated inside my chest cavity and was pressing against my heart.

Catharsis was achieved on a red line train home from work. I was reading ‘The Witch Elm‘, and Toby, the main character, was starting to really unravel, his perspective, his sanity, was becoming less and less trustworthy. Meanwhile the danger around him was increasing, and I really needed to him to stay calm, keep a cool head, because he being framed for murder for fuck’s sake, and he just needed to open his eyes and figure it out and fucking handle it, and I noticed that I was freaking out on the train. Not about work, or something my mom said, or whether I had forgotten my anniversary again – I wasn’t freaking about my own life at all. I was freaking out about Toby. ‘The Witch Elm’ was so unsettling that it had anxiety-bombed my entire week.

The Witch Elm‘ is Tana French’s latest novel. It is also her first novel which is not a Dublin Murder Squad novel, and so even those of us who love her (which is all of us, right?) viewed it with some slight trepidation. I’ve been very clear about how much I love Tana French. But until ‘The Witch Elm’, it would, technically, have been impossible to say whether it was Tana French I loved, or just the Dublin Murder Squad.

Don’t worry – ‘The Witch Elm‘ is a murder mystery. But it’s an unusual mystery, because it takes as its protagonist not a detective (or a coroner, or a reporter), not a victim, not even a murderer. It takes as its protagonist…a bystander?

There is a reason that most murder mysteries feature detectives – they are the participants in criminal dramas who most closely approximate an omniscient narrator. They are the ones who will eventually know everything, and that’s what we expect in exchange for reading a murder mystery: to eventually know everything, too.

That’s why, despite the fact that every murder mystery detective has crippling demons, they are also brilliant and intuitive and unerring. Despite being tortured, often in the grips of strong PTSD flashbacks, and always, always alcoholic, they approach omniscience. We need to trust them, in order to get what we came for: a solution.

Everyone else involved in a murder mystery is a flawed narrator. The job of a detective is, after all, to assemble complete knowledge. Everyone else has incomplete knowledge, a skewed perspective, their own motives. None of them are trustworthy, and one of them will turn out to be the murderer.

In ‘The Witch Elm‘, French leans into this untrustworthness, hard. Toby Hennessy is, well, a complete tool. He’s a handsome, happy-go-lucky Irishman, a thoughtless optimist who has always gotten his way. He has a good job in PR, good friends, a close family, and a great girlfriend to whom he is thinking about proposing when he surprises some burglars one night robbing his apartment. They beat him nearly to death and leave him with lasting brain damage.

A few weeks after being released from the hospital, Toby learns that his beloved uncle Hugo has been diagnosed with brain cancer, and that his case is terminal. Crippled, fractured, traumatized and spiraling into addiction and depression, Toby moves back to Ivy House.

Ivy House is the Hennessy family home. Purchased by his grandparents, it has been Hugo’s residence since their death. It is a beautiful, secluded old mansion with a long, walled garden. When they were children, Toby and his two cousins, Leon and Susannah, spent their weekends and summers there; it was in this private, lovely estate that they became like siblings.

Toby and his girlfriend move back to Ivy House to care for Hugo in his last days, and to let Toby heal. And so they are there when, one afternoon, Toby’s young nephew finds a skull in the Ivy House garden.

The Witch Elm‘ asks: Are you capable of murder? What if you had recently sustained a serious neurological injury? If your memory was damaged, if you could no longer focus, if you were having sudden, dramatic mood swings? Would you be capable then? And if you might be capable, and there were holes in your memory, would you ever be sure that you hadn’t killed someone?

Really, ‘The Witch Elm‘ is a novel about sanity and home. Specifically, about family homes, about how much the places where we happy as child matter to us, about we much we need them even as they haunt and hold us back. It’s about what we lose when we lose our past, and whether we can ever change unless we leave it.

This is a theme with Tana French: houses, houses that we love, homes (this is basically whatThe Likeness‘ was about). She has a good, visceral understanding of the way in which a beautiful place can became a physical embodiment of love itself, that losing a sense of the sacredness of a beautiful place is heartbreaking, like losing a person.

The Witch Elm‘ is really good. It’s good in all the ways that Tana French is normally good: it’s moody, atmospheric, richly detailed and absorbing. She’s a lovely writer; her prose is miles better than almost any other murder mystery prose (Benjamin Black is the only exception I can think of).

But it’s unsettling in a different way. Toby knows that he is in terrible danger, but he cannot discern whether the danger is from within, or from without. Unable to tell whether his family is trying to frame him, or whether he is, in fact, a murderer, he is excruciatingly vulnerable. This vulnerability will communicate itself to sensitive readers in the form of low-level anxiety and panic attacks on the red line.

For me, this is what sets Tana French apart from other mystery writers. Other authors are strong on plot mechanics, or on atmospherics, or on quiet menace; very few are strong on all of them. Tana French’s novels are so richly detailed that it becomes disturbingly easy to lose yourself in them.

It also makes her difficult to write about. I can’t communicate the anxious dread ‘The Witch Elm‘ made me feel. I felt like I was smothering when I was reading it, like I was in danger. This isn’t merely suspense – this is deep, subconscious identification, and it’s difficult to achieve when you read as much as I do. Tana French is special, and, at this point, I’ll read anything she writes – if she puts out a cookbook, I’ll read that cover to cover.

And, at this rate, it’ll probably scare the shit out of me.

My Sister, the Serial Killer

By Oyinkan Braithwaite

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“All he wants is a pretty face. That’s all they ever want.” (p. 69)

There’s an idea (which I’m not sure that I totally believe but whatever) that you can only write what you know. And even if I don’t totally believe that that’s 100% true, it certainly makes sense that writers will be able to paint a clearer picture of something which they themselves have seen, describe more accurately something which they themselves have felt.

Which means, I’m afraid, that if you want to read about women’s rage, the deep, seething fury of women against men, you really ought to be reading things that women wrote.

I’m not sure that I would have described myself as wanting to read about women’s rage, but I have found that I resonate with books about it, that I recognize them and am interested in them. I resonated withDietland‘, another novel about the violence of male priorities and disproportionate female response to them. I think everyone resonated withThe Power‘, another revenge novel of female violence (actually, there have been kind a lot of these lately, huh?)

Korede and Ayoola are sisters. Korede is older: responsible, cleanly, fanatical about order and planning. She can cook and maintain a household. She is about to be made head nurse at the Lagos hospital where she works. She walks, virtuous and lonely, through her life, taking care of the sick. And she is in love, from afar, with Tade, the handsome doctor she works with. The only person in whom she feels she can confide is a coma patient in her ward.

Ayoola is beautiful. She has the kind of beauty that causes the men around her to behave like complete idiots. She has no job; rather, she designs clothing that she models on Instagram. She is the favorite of their mother, the favorite of every man in the Lagos area, the favorite. She is bright and funny and charming and brave and the world loves her.

She has also murdered her last three boyfriends.

Each time, Korede has helped her hide the body, wash away the evidence. Each time, she has believed Ayoola when her sister told her that the killing was done in self-defense. And though it has become harder to believe each time, she has continued to keep her sister’s secret.

Until, one day, Ayoola comes to visit Korede at the hospital, and snares Tade, the doctor whom Korede has loved for so long. And Korede, with her heart broken, has to decide whether Tade, whom she knows would never hurt a soul, is safe with her sister, or whether her sister might be a much different animal than she has allowed herself to admit.

I spent most of ‘My Sister, the Serial Killer‘ thinking that the story was pretty fucking obvious. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy it – quite the contrary. The book is written in a wry, spare voice and parceled into short chapters with snappy titles (some of which are so short as to almost qualify as brutal prose-poems), the combined effect of which is suspenseful and almost bizarrely readable. This is the writerly voice that Bret Easton Ellis wishes he had.

But I thought I knew exactly what story I was reading, and I was wrong (this happens to me a lot, and I never, ever learn). I thought that this was a story about a woman facing the fact that her sister is a monster, about watching the evidence pile up and trying not to see it, but eventually confronting it when someone innocent, someone else she loves, is threatened. A pretty basic, totally fun story.

“Ayoola is wearing dungarees – she is the only person I know who can still pull those off – and she is licking ice cream, probably from the parlor around the corner. She pauses the licking, not because she is moved by Peju’s words, but because she is aware that it is proper to pause whatever one is doing when in the presence of someone who is grieving. I spent three hours explaining that particular etiquette to her one Sunday afternoon.” (p. 161)

That’s not what this story is. This is one of those stories where there isn’t only one monster, and the question that Korede will eventually have to answer isn’t whether or not her sister is one. It’s whether, in a monstrous system, there are any heroes. Whether men are capable of loving, really loving, a woman for who she is, and, if they aren’t, then whether they are worthy of being loved at all. And if they aren’t, if you cannot love men, who do you love? Whether, in a world where men will always objectify, use, and abandon you, the only real love that exists is the love between women. Whether the only love that lasts is family.

Ayoola is not the monster of ‘My Sister, the Serial Killer‘, despite the fact that she is a serial killer. The monster is Tade, the kind man who, at the end of the day, can only love a woman for her beauty. Who cannot be turned from beauty even if it means saving his friendships, or his life. Who believes that his love is sincere, premised on deep connection, while it is in fact only a response to how a woman looks in a skimpy dress. Who will forgive anything (literally, anything) in the woman he loves except ugliness.

Oyinkan Braithwaite

I love stories like this, stories where the serial killer ends up not being the bad guy. Although, of course, that’s an over-simplification: Ayoola is a very bad guy. But, at the end of the day, she is all that Korede has. And, Braithwaite seems to ask, what did you expect Ayoola to become? Brutalized by her father, every man she has met since has let her get away with anything she wanted, as long as they got to treat her like a beautiful thing. Why should she treat men as though they were people, when they have never, ever, done the same for her? Just because you worship an object doesn’t mean it’s not an object.

It’s a really good question, actually. I spent most of ‘My Sister, the Serial Killer‘ rooting against Ayoola. I think I was supposed to: she’s a gorgeous, gold-digging, man-stealing serial killer. It’s pretty breath-taking that Braithwaite can take you from really hating Ayoola (the way you can only hate a man-stealer) to understanding why we will always choose her. Why we, as women, have to always choose her.

It’s especially impressive because Braithwaite accomplishes this emotional allegiance-shifting without ever declaring anything. There are no manifestos here, no pedantic speeches or feminist rah-rahing. All you as her reader experience is the world through the eyes of one woman, Korede, and you and Korede must realize together why she is angry and at whom. Korede is angry because she isn’t beautiful, you both knew that, but you must realize together that being angry at Ayoola because she is doesn’t make any sense. Because the only reason that it matters, Ayoola’s beauty, is because men are too base, too primitive, too shallow, too evil, to see anything else.

At the end of the day, ‘My Sister, the Serial Killer‘ is about who deserves our care and who doesn’t. And, in a cold, dark world, we cannot afford to extend care to those who do not care for us, who do not honor our essential humanity. And in Braithwaite’s world, men, be they ever so handsome, ever so kind, be they doctors even, do not care for us. They do not honor our essential humanity if we are not beautiful, because they don’t see us. And they don’t see us if we are beautiful, because then our beauty is all they see. And if they cannot care for us, then we should not care for them. We must care then, as sisters, for each other, even if we are beautiful.

The Monster of Elendhaven

By Jennifer Giesbrecht

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“Florian dipped gingerly, right at the sodden border cut by the tide, and plucked out a stone: perfectly round, an inch in diameter and opalescent in sheen. He held it aloft for Johann’s benefit. “The oldest stories of the North called these rocks Hallandrette’s Roe. She lays her clutch along the beach, and protects them from the destructive hands of mortal beings.” Florian turned on his heel and pitched the stone at the cliff-wall as hard as he could. It bounced off the slate harmlessly. “See? Hard stone. Unbreakable.”

Johann frowned. “How do you crack one open, then?”

Florian smiled, secretive. “A privilege reserved for Hallandrette’s chosen. When a wretched child, one wronged or wounded deep in the soul, throws what they love most in the ocean they may cast a roe against the stone and a hallankind will be born. Keep the stone in their pocket and the Queen sends to them one of her children.:

“A friend for the lonely soul.”

“A companion,” Florian affirmed, “made from the same dark matter that coats the bottom of the Nord Sea. A hallankind will love that wretched child as a brother or sister. They will drag whoever wronged their brother-sister-friend into the sea and wring them through the spines of their mother’s baleen until they are foam and sea particle, forgotten in the cradle of her belly.” (p. 52).

Maybe all stories are love stories.

OK, not ALL of them – it’s difficult to describe, oh, ‘Heart of Darkness’ as a love story – but it’s surprisingly hard to come up with a story that isn’t, in some way, a love story.

The trick of it is to understand that love stories sometimes come hidden in unlikely disguises. All sorts of people have love stories who don’t look like they deserve them. Broken people, evil people, sad people, rude people, angry people, all sorts of morally unphotogenic people who nevertheless occasionally find themselves looking for love, feeling love, or acting out of love.

In some ways, those are our favorite love stories. Maybe it’s because they are more suspenseful, since we aren’t sure that the characters in them will find love. Maybe it’s because they are more ambiguous, since we don’t know whether we really want them to find love. Or maybe it’s because they feel truer, since very few of us feel 100% certain that we deserve love.

The inside jacket cover of ‘The Monster of Elendhaven’

When I saw ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ in a bookstore the other day, I didn’t think it was a love story. It doesn’t look like a love story. I’m not sure why I bought it – I’m not in the habit of purchasing books of unknown provenance. But the cover was creepy and the description was even creepier, and I was on a mini-vacation, so I bought it.

Elendhaven is failing industrial city on the northern edge of the map. A hideous accident generations ago has left the ocean poisoned and black. The ancient noble families of Elendhaven have fallen into poverty and the magic that was the source of their power has been outlawed.

Johann does not know who he is or where he came from. All he knows is that he used to be nameless, unloved, born of darkness, until he decided to call himself Johann. He tends to slide off people’s attention, unremarked and unremembered by anyone who meets him. And he can’t be killed, at least not permanently.

And he knows that he likes to kill people. Johann is an accomplished killer – a monster, in fact – who stalks the streets of Elendhaven taking whatever he wants and killing whomever had it.

One night, Johann chooses to rob Florian Leickenbloom, the last living member of the once-magnificant Leickenbloom family. Florian is a small, beautiful man who also happens to be, as Johann soon learns, a sorcerer. Orphaned as a child when the rest of his family was killed in a plague, Florian lives in hermitish seclusion, planning his revenge. And instead of killing him, Johann will fall in love with Florian, and help him realize his terrible plan.

I don’t know if it’s more or less beautiful when a monster loves another monster. But something I respect about Giesbrecht: her monsters are really monsters. They are ugly and evil; they hurt people and they enjoy it. They even hurt each other, and because they have lived lives characterized by pain, cruelty, and rejection, this is part of their love.

The Monster of Elendhaven‘ is gory, viscerally and explicitly gory. It’s creepy, and sexy, and kind of funny, and sad. It’s also romantic, I think?

Romance is not my strong suit, so I might be wrong. It’s also not my favorite genre – I actually have to leave the room during proposal scenes in movies, because they make me so uncomfortable. But, as far as I understand it, romances are stories in which two elements complement each other in a way which makes each feel as though things about them which had been wrong or missing are, in fact, purposeful and right.

This is why this they are powerful for us. We’re all missing pieces, or rough along an edge or two, crumpled where we should be smooth, and romances provide a reason for those traits: those are things which make us ourselves, so if someone loves us, then the self that we are is the right self, and therefore those things are right, too. Love justifies our pain, and our mistakes – it is the forgiveness from the world we need to forgive ourselves.

Jennifer Giesbrecht

And that’s why the romances of monsters are the most revealing romances of all: they are the far-out test case, the most extreme example. They are interesting, yes, monsters are always interesting, but it’s more than that: they are the limit on the possible. And you know you fit comfortably within their limit, and so you know that your experience, your romance, your love, will fit comfortably within theirs.

I wonder if I am the only person who read ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ and thought about love the whole time. I’m definitely not the only person who noticed it was a romance, but I might be the only person who thought it was a lovely romance (rather than a horrific one). That there is something beautiful about the idea of an abandoned little boy raging at the world, calling a monster forth from the ocean who will love and avenge him and who cannot die the way his family did. Who can therefore never leave him alone. In the idea that, if we are monsters, the world might provide another monster to love us, to make us whole.

Because maybe only a monster can truly love another monster.

It’s like there’s a whole other world, full of weird, creepy people (which I definitely am), and we get a whole different, creepy literature. But just because we’re weird and dark doesn’t mean that we don’t have feelings – it just means that our feelings are creepier and weirder than other peoples. And ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ is a romance for us.

Maybe that’s a weird reaction. But such a weird little book deserves a weird little reaction. ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ is a book about revenge and hate and gruesome death, and I thought that it was super romantic, but not in the way I hate – in a way I kind of loved. It’s the most romantic murder book I’ve read.

At least this year.

The Likeness

By Tana French

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“This is Lexie Madison’s story, not mine. I’d love to tell you one without getting into the other, but it doesn’t work that way. I used to think I sewed us together at the edges with my own hands, pulled the stitches tight and I could unpick them any time I wanted. Now I think it always ran deeper than that and farther, underground; out of sight and way beyond my control.” (p. 3)

I wrote a few weeks ago about ‘In the Woods‘, the first book in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. I believe that I loved it very much; I think, in fact, that I did a crappy job reviewing it because I wanted to hurry up and read this.

The Likeness‘ is the second of the Dublin Murder Squad series. Detective Cassie Maddox, exhausted and heart-broken after the events of ‘In the Woods‘, has retired from the Murder Squad and has been hiding out in the Domestic Violence division. One day, she gets a call from her old mentor from Undercover, Frank Mackey, to come see a dead body. Confused initially, for she has left Murder behind her, the call becomes clear when she learns that the body is carrying ID which states her name as Alexandra Madison. Lexie Madison: that is the name of Cassie Maddox’s old undercover alias.

So who has adopted Cassie Maddox’s discarded alias? This new Lexie Madison is a graduate student. She lives in Whitethorn House, a old estate she shares with her four closest friends, also graduate students. It soon becomes clear that the most unusual thing about the already unusual victim is this incredible close friendship. These five students, outsiders, belong utterly to each other, share a bond which is more like a family than any friendship Cassie Maddox has ever seen. And now Lexie has been stabbed to death, and left in a cottage near Whitethorn House.

And when Cassie Maddox sees the body, she realizes that there is another reason she has been called to this particular crime scene: not only does Lexie Madison wear her name, Lexie is also wearing Maddox’s face. The two women could be twins, they look so alike.

In order to exploit the remarkable similarity in their appearances, Mackey convinces the press to suppress the news of the murder, and sends Maddox into Whitehorn House to live with Lexie’s friends, to learn her life, to discover who might have killed her.

The Likeness‘ is two mysteries rolled into one: the mystery of Lexie Madison’s death, and the mystery of Lexie Madison’s life. The solution to both of these mysteries lies somewhere in Whitethorn house, among the four friends who loved her so deeply.

Honestly, my expectations for this book couldn’t have been a lot higher. I loved ‘In the Woods‘, and I barely paused for breath before starting ‘The Likeness‘. I don’t think I’ve ever vaulted from one mystery novel to the second in such rapid succession – normally, I have rules about this sort of thing, and I like to make sure that I don’t read books by the same author in succession (I know, don’t I sound fun?)

High expectations are not, usually, a great way to go into a book. It’s a little like deciding that someone is your soulmate on first sight: you just don’t have the info you need, and you’ve now prevented yourself from appreciating any lesser, more normal outcome. In the end, I was not at all disappointed by ‘The Likeness‘, but, while ‘In the Woods‘ grabbed me immediately, it took me a little time to acclimate to this novel.

Settling into ‘The Likeness‘ meant willingly suspending some disbelief about the unlikeliness of the premise. All murder mysteries are, more or less, unlikely: the realism quotient of the genre is low. However, anyone who has ever had a friend, or a family member, or a romantic partner, will know that this premise is particularly outlandish. No matter how alike two unrelated people may look, they would never be able to fool an intimate. If your best friend walked out of the house one night, and was replaced by an undercover cop who looked like just them and had seen a few videos of them, do you really think they would fool you for more than a day? Come on…

But, of course, that is so much not the point. Weirdly, the murder also isn’t the point. The point of ‘The Likeness‘ (as in ‘In the Woods‘) are the relationships. As Cassie Maddox lives with Lexie’s friends, as she wears Lexie’s face, she falls in love with the group, with the house, that Lexie loved. And she almost gets lost.

So, yes, it took me a little while to settle into ‘The Likeness‘. My own high expectations and the outrageous premise worked against my enjoyment for a little while, until something else sank in: Tana French has a totally different project than any other mystery writer I’ve ever encountered.

Tana French

A theme is beginning to emerge from French’s works: they are about the souring of love. This is a brave and unusual theme for a detective novelist. Detective novels nod at the warmer human emotions – someone occasionally kills from jealousy, or spurned love. But, mostly, as in life, people in murder mysteries kill from baseness: from greed, or sickness, or alienated rage.

In Tana French, it seems, people kill from love. Her novels are studies in love, not in the ordinary, pedestrian, every day love we all know, but the rare, deep, once-in-a-lifetime loves which some of us are lucky enough to be defined by. Both ‘In the Woods‘ and ‘The Likeness‘ are about these loves, about what happens when they break, but even more about the way we grow around them, what they make us into, and why it is that, when they do break, the consequences are catastrophic for us.

I think that this focus, this obsession of French’s with deep love, is what imparts so much beauty to her books, more even than her creepy, adjectival Irish English. These are stories of relationships – the murders haunt the periphery of these stories. They are the lurking threat which accompany the love, and it is the love which really interests French.

And this theme works for me on a profound level. Don’t get me wrong: I’ll tear through a paperback about a sicko psychopath with a sex dungeon and a penchant for taunting the police. I’m not too fancy for sex crime novels, or greed crime novels, or labyrinthine revenge crime novels – I like those novels, too!

But there is something about the curdled love which seeps through Tana French’s novels that just holds me in place, roots me to the spot, until I finish them. I love these novels, and while I’m reading, I belong to them. I’m upset when they end. They make me uneasy in my soul. I’m going to read every single one.

Alias Grace

By Margaret Atwood

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I’m beginning to suspect that all Margaret Atwood’s books are really just about how terrible men are.

Certainly, that’s what ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘ is about.  It’s pretty much what ‘Oryx and Crake‘ is about.  It’s kind of what ‘The Blind Assassin‘ is about, although I’ll grant that is a fuzzier case.

But it’s definitely what ‘Alias Grace‘ is about.

Alias GraceNot superficially, of course.  ‘Alias Grace‘ is the story of Grace Marks, convicted at the age of 16 of murdering her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his head of household (and lover), Nancy Montgomery.  She allegedly commits this murder with the help of her lover, James McDermott, who is hanged for the crime.  Grace, in view of her youth, is given a life sentence.

Most of the novel takes place many years into her imprisonment, during her extended examination by Dr. Simon Jordan, who is a specialist in diseases of the mind.  It is the story of her life (from her questionable perspective), of her relationship with this doctor, of his obsession with her, and of the murders themselves.  It is a mystery of guilt or innocence.

But, really, it’s a long indictment of men, of male power and the abuses it rains down upon women who are powerless.  It is about doctors who grope during examinations, employers who rape their servants, institutions which incarcerate women who do not conform, men who defame women who will not sleep with them, abortionists who kill women without consequence.

It about the fact that, in a society where men alone are powerful, women are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

I’m not exaggerating this theme, and it is not subtle.  Take, for example, this discussion of quilts, which Grace is forever sewing and on which she is forever discoursing:

“…when we’d hung a half-dozen of them up on a line, all in a row, I thought that they looked like flags, hung out by an army as it goes to war.

And since that time I have thought, why is it that women have chosen to sew such flags, and then to lay them on the the tops of beds?  For they make the bed the most noticeable thing in a room.  And then I have thought, it’s for warning.  Because you may think a bed is a peaceful thing, Sir, and to you it may mean rest and comfort and a good night’s sleep.  But it isn’t so for everyone; and there are many dangerous things that may take place in a bed.  It is where we are born, and that is our first peril in life; and it is where the women give birth, which is often their last.  And it is where the act takes place between men and women that I will not mention to you, Sir, but I suppose you know what it is; and some call it love, and others despair, or else merely an indignity which they must suffer through.” (p. 161)

Check your privilege, Sir.

Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood

Of course, Margaret Atwood is a marvelous storyteller; she always has been.  She has an eye for detail, for immersion.  It’s easy to lose yourself in her books: I sat down and read ‘Alias Grace‘ in one long layover in Tokyo, and I was honestly in more danger of developing thrombosis from reading this book than I was in the 12 hour flight that followed it.  That’s a strong recommendation for any novel.

But there is something about Atwood which always makes my teeth hurt a little, something irritating right at the edge of her writing.  Perhaps it is a lack of irony.  There is a lyrical quality to her prose, a sort of sing-songing free association in her descriptions, which can be enormously effective, but which more often annoys me badly.

Here, for example, is a passage where I think that writing style works really well:

“The season has now officially changed: Lydia has burst into bloom.  Layers of pale floral ruffling have sprouted all over her, and wave from her shoulders like diaphanous wings.  Simon eats his fish – overdone, but no one on this continent can poach a fish properly – and admires the smooth white contours of her throat, and what can be seen of her bosom.  It’s as if she is sculpted of whipped cream.  She should be on the platter, instead of the fish.  He’s heard stories of a famous Parisian courtesan who had herself presented at a banquet in this way; naked, of course.” (p. 193)

Here, though, is an example of that writing style which makes me want to run screaming from the room:

“It’s the middle of the night, but time keeps going on, and it also goes round and around, like the sun and the moon on the tall clock in the parlour.  Soon it will be daybreak.  Soon the day will break.  I can’t stop it from breaking in the same way it always does, and then from lying there broken; always the same day, which comes around like clockwork.  It begins with the day before the day before, and then the day before, and it’s the day itself.  A Saturday.  The breaking day.”  (p. 295)

I understand that this passage is supposed to communicate the maddening monotony of an imprisoned life, but I’ve never really liked expression by reader-punishment like this – just because my protagonist is suffering should not mean that I must, too.

Or, perhaps, what annoys me is the vague sense of female grievance that lurks behind Atwood’s stories.  Yes, men can be terrible, but there is something flat, two-dimensional, to a world in which everything is explained by the fact that men are terrible, to a world in which all men are terrible in some way, a world in which you cannot have both a good nature and a penis.

And then there is the problem of the resolution.

[Warning: what follows is a very spoilery spoiler.  Very, very spoilery].

It’s always disappointing when endings and books don’t match, when a well-developed and richly imagined book purchases its end with implausible plot theatrics.

A general rule of mine: there are, I think, a few plot mechanisms which, if you find yourself using them, always mean that you need to re-think your storyline.  They signal lazy craft – they are cheap.

These plot developments include (but are not limited to): secret brother-sister incest (I’m looking at you, ‘August: Osage County‘, and you, ‘Crimson Peak‘), a secret twin (excusing ‘The Prestige‘, which pulls it off and (little known fact) is a book!), and a protagonist with undiagnosed Multiple Personality Disorder.

Alias Grace‘ strongly implies that Grace Marks, at the time of the murders, is under the control of an alternate personality, that of her dead friend, Mary Whitney, whose death (at the hands of a back-alley abortionist, of course) was traumatic for Grace.  And, just to add fuel to the trashy fire, this fact is brought to light while she is under hypnosis.

Resolving a murder mystery via multiple personalities is, in my opinion, totally bogus.  ‘Alias Grace‘ is a subtle, thorough story, based on a real person who almost certainly did not have multiple personalities.  Until that session of hypnosis, it was a complex novel about power, and rage, and friendship, and love, what it means to be guilty and whether we can ever see how the world looks through another person’s eyes and how slippery the truth can be.

And then it resolves all that lovely moral ambiguity with the sort of plot device that you expect to see in an episode of Criminal Minds.  It was very disappointing.

None of which, obviously, kept me from turning its pages like it was the last book on Earth.  That’s Atwood for you – whatever your complaints about her, she’s tough to put down.