Sunday, June 5, 2011

5. Alias Grace (1996) - Margaret Atwood

The mills were sold, and the imposing house of his childhood, with its large staff of domestics - the chambermaids, the kitchen maids, the parlour maids, that ever-changing chorus of smiling girls or women with names like Alice and Effie, who cosseted and also dominated his childhood and youth, and whom he thinks of as having somehow been sold along with the house. They smelled like strawberries and salt; they had long rippling hair, when it was down, or one of them did; it was Effie, perhaps.

This is the first book of Margaret Atwood's I've read and it didn't disappoint. It is a historical-fiction novel based on the real-life trial of Grace Marks who, along with James McDermott, was convicted of killing her employer Thomas Kinnear and his house-keeper (and supposed mistress), Nancy Montgomery. The book begins at the end essentially, with Grace already having been imprisoned for a number of years. A fictional doctor, Simon Jordan, investigates her case as he tries to research criminal behaviour, but he ends up becoming personally involved and almost obsessed with trying to determine Grace's true culpability. Barely sixteen at the time of her conviction, Atwood presents a woman who in her later years is just as gentle, hard-working and plain-speaking, if considerably wiser than her younger self. She now knows what needs to be said and has built a sufficient protective wall, but there is an innocence and frankness which intrigues both Doctor Jordan and the reader alike. Utterly engrossing all the way through, I found Atwood's narrative style engaging and nostalgic. Similar to Grace herself, it appears that all the facts have been laid bare in this book, brought out piece by piece, and yet the truth remains elusive. A beautiful and heart-rending story to be contemplated long after the final page is turned.

4 stars

4. A Woman of Two Wars: The Life of Mary Borden (2010) - Jane Conway

‘I look down at that dreadful place under the flickering light of our hurricane lanterns. It is one in the morning. The door at the far end is still opening and shutting, opening and shutting – for still they are coming from the battlefield – and my old ones are going quietly and steadily about their business. I can see them from behind the wooden screen where I have a dozen fine needles on the boil. I have been on duty 36 hours and am become a sleep-walker, an automaton, and then one of my old ones puts his head round the screen and holds out both his old hands, one with a tin cup of pinard, the other with a hunk of bread. He has brought me his casse-croûte and he says in his rough voice, ‘Faut manger, ma sœur.’
This was originally a book I just picked up because the title (and the portrait of Mary on the front cover) caught my attention. I'm glad I chanced upon it as it proved to be a surprisingly engaging read. Mary Borden was a highly ambitious and successful woman who ran hospital units for the French (although she was an American living in England) during the First and Second World War. Intelligent with a flair for story-telling, 'May' was a celebrated novelist and poet in her lifetime and published numerous books, some of which are extremely autobiographical in content. She was also married to Edward Louis Spears, a man truly in the centre of the Second World War and a personal friend of Winston Churchill.
Reading this biography was a joy as I explored another side of this period of history, while also being introduced to a truly remarkable lady. Through the help of May's relatives, her diaries, correspondences and books, Jane Conway has painted a delicate and seemingly very truthful portrait. Conway assumes much in her descriptions of May's feelings, but they lend an authenticity and genuineness to an account which may otherwise have been a bit dry due to the necessary inclusion of political maneuvers and general war history. 

For me personally I found much to be inspired by within May's life, especially through her prolific writing. Between her many obligations as a mother, author, advocate and wife to an aspiring politician, she still found time to write, and wonderfully a large portion of this biography draws upon her diaries and letters. At the time I finished this book I was particularly taken with the following quote for making me feel a bit more resilient against the dry-bone existence of simply waiting, as well as the fear of trying new things and failing.

'I didn't want to go', she later wrote, but 'perhaps that was the reason. An old lesson learned in childhood from some puritanical forebear or Spartan Nanny. If you hate the job, do it; if you are afraid, stand up to it.' (285-286)

3 stars