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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sarah Waters and Margaret Atwood

“Fingersmith”; “Night Watch”; “Alias Grace”

I’m back! What a lot to catch up on.  Follow me down a winding path as one thought/ one book leads to another.
I have been reading Sarah Waters and so far I’ve plowed through 3 of her 5 books; however I’m only going to review “Night Watch” and “Fingersmith”, which are number 3 and 4, respectively, and were both short-listed for the Man Booker and the Orange Prize.  Waters’ bio says she was born in Wales in 1966, and is an associate lecturer with the Open University. But possibly this is just a sideline because I can’t see where she finds the time to teach while also writing compulsively readable books that win prizes and get made into films by the BBC. She should be better known than she is because she’s a hell of a writer. One reason why her work isn’t more widely known may be that she is categorized as a LGBT author, and I think this pigeonholes her and perhaps limits her appeal. But it’s a false distinction.
Her books are populated with gay and lesbian characters who fall in love and make each other happy or miserable as is usually the case. As a straight person I didn’t find anything about her writing that was unsettling or disturbing, or outside of my experience. On the contrary, Waters is sensitive and skilled in evoking the mysterious ways and reasons, both physical and emotional, that cause people to be drawn to one another.
Anyhow…”Night Watch” is a fast, absorbing read. I don’t usually feel drawn to World War 2 era stories, it’s just not my favorite historical period. But I was fascinated by the vivid portrayal of life in London during wartime-- the rationing, the food shortages, the bombed-out streets and buildings, the wailing sirens, blackout curtains and air raid shelters. Given the fact that incendiaries are dropping from the sky and as one person says,  “we might all be dead tomorrow”, people are driven to recklessness.  They’re ready to throw away caution and convention in exchange for honesty and the pursuit of a life-affirming passion. The story is told in reverse chronological sequence, starting in 1947 and working backwards to 1941, and the characters are explained through the gradual reveal of their history. They seem tangentially connected to one another at first, but they are linked in ways that become clearer as the plot unfolds. I grew to sympathize the most with Kay, who after the war spends her time wandering around the streets of London, dressed like a man, and searching for something indefinable. She felt most alive during wartime when driving an ambulance and pulling people out of burning buildings (an opportunity that came about due to the shortage of men). Another character, Viv, meets for secret trysts with her married boyfriend, while wondering what she can do to sort out her damaged brother, Duncan, who spent time in prison for reasons that aren’t clear until later. A fourth major character, Helen, is analytical and introspective. Even though consumed with jealousy and self-loathing, she is the narrator whose consciousness is most awake and observant.
“Fingersmith” is a tour de force, in my opinion. It’s a contemporary version of the Victorian sensational novel, ala Wilkie Collins, and it has more than a whiff of Dickens and George Elliot.  Brimming with Gothic atmosphere, it left me turning pages at 3 AM because I couldn’t stand the suspense. For such a convoluted storyline, I never had any difficulty in following it. I was totally drawn in by the multiple twists and double-crosses, the complex characters (NO one is as they seem),  and by the sheer depth of human cruelty and kindness.  As in “Night Watch”, the story is told from more than one viewpoint; events are first recounted by one character, and later retold by a different one, with missing information filled in. There are details galore to get lost in…so much research went into this book! Research about the state of the field of psychiatry and Victorian ideas about curing the insane; about ladies’ clothing—the silks and taffetas, petticoats and stays--and what a lady’s maid’s duties are; about the resentments of the servant class and the power plays among the maids and footmen in charge of running those large country estates; about the petty thieves and grifters who live in the underbelly of London.  Careful thought has gone into naming the characters: Maud is the name of a white-gloved lady, while Sue is a common servant’s name. There is an elegant but coldhearted scam artist known to all as Gentleman, and a criminal couple who run a sort of orphanage/boarding school for fencers of stolen goods and pickpockets, and go by the Dickensian monikers of Mrs. Sucksby and Mr. Ibbs.  I won’t go into any further detail because the less said the greater the fun, and this one is a treat.

Reading about the travails of the madhouse in “Fingersmith” made me want to segue right into “Alias Grace” by Margaret Atwood, which is, I believe, her first foray into historical fiction, rather than her usual contemporary realistic or futuristic speculative novels. “Alias Grace” takes as its starting point the true story of Grace Marks, a notorious Canadian woman who in 1843 was convicted of murdering her employer and his mistress. Because of her gender and her tender age (she was 16 at the time of the murders) she wasn’t hung for the crime but sentenced instead to life in prison and she spent some years in a mental asylum. She always maintained her innocence, and in fact she claimed to have total amnesia regarding the murders. Atwood tells the story through Grace’s words and memories, and also through the letters and notes of a young doctor, Simon Jordan (who I think is a fictional character). Dr. Jordan attempts to help Grace while at the same time making his own reputation as a practitioner of the brand new field of psychotherapy.  He has Grace tell him her dreams and he employs the technique of free association to try to help her remember.  If he is successful at proving her innocence, she may be able to get a pardon, so they both have something invested in the relationship.
Grace has had a lot of time to think about her situation and she has developed a strong will and some good survival skills. She isn’t a victim but she may in fact be innocent of any crime. Whether she is evil, insane, a heroine or a dupe, is something we never can quite decide. She’s an unreliable narrator at best, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to believe in her innocence. The story is beautifully written and really gives a flavor of mid-nineteenth century North America. I totally enjoyed it.

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