5 Reasons to Get Excited About Alias Grace on Netflix

A very fabulous Friday to one and all. As I feverishly try to finish reading the book, the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace arrives on Netflix. It’s been on my TBR pile for yonks and was moved up the list when the release date was announced but alas, the awesome tiny person with whom I am spending most of my time at the moment is not entirely sympathetic to such ‘deadlines’ and so I am battling the temptation to binge watch before I have read the final pages. However, from where I’ve got to, I can see way more than five reasons to be excited about another Atwood adaptation but in the interests of brevity (as demanded by afore mentioned tiny person) I have exercised some self-restraint!

  1. Atwood translates brilliantly onto screen.

I have finally plucked up the emotional courage to finish watching the new and much lauded version of The Handmaid’s Tale. It strikes me that there is a reason it has become an icon for our times beyond the eerie prescience of the subject matter. Atwood has a knack for conveying the states of her characters visually: the clothes and costumes they wear are powerfully reflective not only of social position but of the political oppressions they are subject to in that position. Obviously the red habits of the Handmaids are the standout example of this but it pops up in lots of Atwood I’ve read; the MaddAddam Trilogy (currently in development by Darren Aronofsky and seeking a home) does it very well too, as does, Alias Grace.

2. Alias Grace is just as relevant as THMT. 

Without wanting to give anything away, Alias Grace is another study in the violence and oppression of patriarchy. Although it is a historical novel based on the story of a real woman who purportedly murdered her employers, it deals with many of the same themes as THMT. The disempowered female figure worked on by a brutalising patriarchal order might in this instance be set in the grime of the Victorian era but it’s a book that seethes with anger and outrage in the same way as the Handmaid’s dystopian future. The Weinstein revelations and continuing fallout in the era of “grab ’em by the pussy”, layers both books (and hopefully both adaptations) with more, very real urgency.

3. Atwood is consulting producer on the production

And we all trust Margaret, do we not?

I love the freedom she afforded the makers of THMT adaptation. She allowed it the capacity to be as pertinent as possible without compromising her world creation in any way. Indeed, as it has been confirmed that season two of THMT will move beyond the scope of the original book and an audiobook has been released with a new ending, there are rumours afoot that a fully fledged sequel may be in the offing. What is most exciting about this is the way in which Atwood sees the fluidity between media: just as her stories usually highlight ambiguity and subjectivity so she reflects this in the flexibility of her narrative modes. There is, of course, more than one way to tell a story and Atwood’s enthusiasm for this multiplicity only expands the reach and depth of her writing. Indeed, she’s been branching into another more visual medium with her graphic work Angel Catbird.

4. It’s a bloody good story. 

I have a bit of a weird thing with Atwood: I absolutely love her but I always struggle to get into her books to start with. This was no exception but, as is usually the way, once embroiled it’s a brilliant and clever thrill of a read. It won the Booker in 2000 so evidently I am not alone in thinking it rather good. And, once I’ve finished it, I will be very interested to have it retold from someone else’s imagination.

5. Well, would you check out this trailer? 

Should we ‘decolonise the canon’? What a ridiculous question: of course we should.

This is a subject that I feel very, very strongly about – as anyone I’ve ever taught will be able to attest. And, whilst I have often come at it from a feminist angle, purely because that is my ‘margin’ as it were (though it feels bonkers to refer to 50% of the world’s population as a margin of any kind) and it is the area about which I feel most knowledgeable. As it happens, I am on a deliberate mission to broaden my scope and to read more BAME authors, though again, this has been in some respects limited to contemporary work. The ‘row’ that has erupted/wasentirelymanufacturedbysomeappallingjournalismfromTheDailyTelegraph over an open letter from the English students at Cambridge is frankly a nonsense.

The dominant forces in the Western world have for time immemorial been patriarchal and white. It is therefore unsurprising that the educational traditions of said world reflect this exclusivity. The power systems of a society shape the imprint it leaves but that does not render such an imprint accurate. Just because the canon that we have come to accept culturally is overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male does not make this a true reflection of the breadth and quality of writing the world has to offer. Oh and by the way, anyone who dares to proffer the argument that there just aren’t as many women or BAME writers of the same quality is either stupendously arrogant, stupendously ignorant or some unholy combination of the two.

Whilst it may be true to point out that educational opportunity may have produced more work from white, male authors and indeed have denied the voices of many who fall outside that category (see Virginia Woolf on Shakespeare’s imaginary sister); this fact makes it incumbent on those who write the narrative, who shape the modern canon, to expand and recalibrate it. If you are a true lover of literature I can think of nothing more exciting! The more I read, the less well-read I feel because each book, play, poem leads to some other possibility. The joy of reading is in being humbled by how little you know and enthralled by how much there is to learn.

This of course all ties in to broader issues about representation and why it matters that we are exposed to diversity as well as  the white dudes we meet so routinely (NOTE: not necessarily instead of – calm down guys, we aren’t trying to eradicate you as so many of you seem to believe). There are plenty of people far better qualified than I to comment on this so I’ve linked to just a few bits on the topic below that have stuck with me – happy reading and please do link to other recommended reading on the topic in the comments…

Reading into Motherhood – Stay With Me, Ayòbàmi Adébàyò

As promised, this post will set out some thoughts on Ayòbámi Adébàyò’s startling novel of motherhood, marriage and masculinity. Also shortlisted for the Bailey’s prize, on the face of it, Stay With Me could not be more different from Naomi Alderman’s The Power which eventually won. Alderman’s novel is an audacious story of speculative fiction using key players to narrate large scale calamity; Adébàyò by contrast is intensely focused on the intimacy of the family. That said, both novels present clear challenges to societal assumptions about gender; one of the most interesting aspects of Stay With Me is the toxicity of expectation, not just of women and motherhood but of masculinity and what it is to be a son, a father, husband.

Set against the turbulent politics of 1980s Nigeria (about which I know precisely nothing and now wish to learn), Stay With Me unspools the story of Yejide and Akin who, after four years of marriage, are unable to conceive a child. Despite Yejide’s protestations, a second wife is provided for Akin by his family in the hope that children will follow. Aspects of the story are familiar: it is assumed that the “problem” is Yejide’s. It is she who seeks treatment, is subject to interrogations and humiliations at the hands of the family and she who feels the childlessness they share most acutely as hers. Adébàyò, though, offers dual first person narratives that work to reveal the complexity of familial pressure, not only on a childless woman, but on a man in this position. The desire to fulfil a powerful and oppressive version of masculinity leads Akin into terrible and unforgiveable manipulation of his wife. There is throughout a pervasive sense of entitlement to the female body and to its reproductive power which, in the context of the #metoo campaign just this week and the Harvey Weinstein revelations, feels especially pertinent.

There is great beauty in the writing too. The language is lyrical in its bell-like clarity. Adébàyó’s skill is not only in the creation of voice and character but in the distillation of emotion at its most complex. And in what context is feeling more complicated than within the family?

“If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.”

It is strange and unnerving to read a novel so focused on children and their absence at six and a half months pregnant. It is not too much of a spoiler to share that Yejide experiences a phantom pregnancy soon after wife number 2 appears. Sections of the novel left me holding my bump, a tightness in my chest when the little one hadn’t kicked for a while.

I came to the book completely blind and wonder if my emotional response would have been substantially different had I read the novel before I was pregnant or indeed after the little miss was born. I suspect it would have been. Adébàyò’s subject and her rendering of it are devastating in equal measure. Reading this book into motherhood with all the anxiety that entails I realise now that the title is a sort of mantra. During those first anxious weeks through the long nine (and a half in our case) months to the tiny little person currently asleep on my chest, the mother in me unconsciously whispers to her: stay with me.

Shall we dance? – Zadie Smith’s Swing Time

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So, the length of time between posts will have already demonstrated to you that I failed spectacularly at my own challenge to read and review the Bailey’s shortlist before the winner was announced. For what it’s worth, I did in fact read and make copious notes on Stay With Me which was a deserving nominee and I promise I will upload my thoughts in more detail soon (I can partially compensate for this half-baked effort by providing a link to the author, Ayobami Adebayo’s thoughts on the integral themes of infertility and marriage here). I did though, fall at the first fence (pun absolutely intended) in reading the rather hefty The Sport of Kings. I hauled my copy to France (and now back again) and promise to revisit and indeed to finish soon. In my paltry defence, I have in the interim produced a rather awesome brand new tiny person who has taken up rather a lot of time and energy and so I hope to be forgiven.

Failing as I was to get into The Sport of Kings, I was quite easily tempted away by Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time. It received rave reviews on publication last year with many declaring it to be her “masterpiece” or “finest novel yet” and it has earned Smith her second Booker nomination (the first being for On Beauty which I thoroughly enjoyed). What then, is all the fuss about?

The novel traces the diverging paths of two childhood friends from the same Willesden estate. Both girls have parents of different races: Tracy’s indulgent mother is white, her primarily absent and sinister father, black (the right “way round”, we are told); where the unnamed narrator’s mother, fierce in intelligence and opinion, is black and her father, hapless postman, is white. The girls share a love of dance and though Tracy is the one with the talent that seemingly offers a route off the estate, our narrator is the one who leaves for a life as personal assistant to Aimée a pop superstar.

To describe this novel as a coming of age story or about race or female relationships is to reduce it to its component parts. It is extraordinary in terms of its scope and construction: yes, it is absolutely about coming of age and race and female relationships but it is so multifarious, so carefully and thoroughly layered that it, fittingly, resists those labels. Identity is shown to be relative and unstable, absolutes are undermined and selfhood shown in perpetual fragility. Smith’s writing is intricate in its exploration of identity and its distillation of intersecting influences like race, class, gender. Dance, the central motif, is portrayed throughout as a leveller of these (and many other) factors symbolising possibility and connection.

 “a great dancer has no time, no generation, he moves eternally through the world, so that any dancer in any  age may recognize him”

It is though a strange read. I spent the first two thirds in appreciating how incredibly skilled Smith is and simultaneously feeling rather disappointed and let down by the story and a sense that this was perhaps stylish construction over substantial emotional depth. I had loved the outrageous audacity of the narrative voice in White Teeth and felt short-changed by the quieter, more controlled tenor of the narrator here, unsure how much I really cared about her. By the time I had finished though, I am pleased to say that I was, quite literally, moved to tears.

Post-pregnancy hormones? Sure. Also, the focus on maternal relationships in the closing pages – I lost my own mother three and a half years ago and had just given birth to our first child, a daughter of my own, when I read it. But, it is also Smith’s unerringly precise and incisive observation that hits those nerves so brilliantly. Swing Time is indeed, disciplined, mature and elaborately plotted but it is also rich and raw in its excavation of what it means to be human and how we truly relate to those arounds us.

The Ladies’ Paradise, Émile Zola: ‘a poem to modern activity’

This was not my first encounter with Zola but it was certainly my first successful one. When I was seventeen I tried to read L’Assomoir in French and, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not get very far. I’ve always been a bit wary of texts in translation for the simple reason that a bad translation can ruin a wonderful book; a wariness much exacerbated by some rather dry, dense translations of Sartre which put me off him for a good while. Brian Nelson’s translation of Au Bonheur des Dames suffers no such impediments and unfamiliar with the story (in spite of the BBCs recent adaptation) I thoroughly enjoyed it, cracking through all 432 pages at speed. It was especially fun to read during a road trip across the south of France which encompassed Zola’s hometown of Aix-en-Provence.

The reader is drawn into the compelling and colourful world of the grand department store, The Paradise, with the same force that it entrances and fascinates our heroine: the young and innocent Denise Baudu. In the opening pages, Denise and her brothers Jean and Pépé arrive in Paris in search of their Uncle and stumble across The Ladies’ Paradise. The effect is immediate and emotional: ‘this building which seemed so enormous, brought a lump to her throat and held her rooted to the spot, excited, fascinated, oblivious to everything else.’ The shop windows are an orgy of energy and colour where the…

…umbrellas, placed obliquely, seemed to form the roof of some rustic hut, beneath which, suspended from rods and displaying the rounded outline of calves, were silk stockings, some strewn with bunches of roses, others of every hue – black net, red with embroidered clocks, flesh-coloured ones with a satiny texture which had the softness of a blonde woman’s skin…

Throughout the novel we are treated to these sensuous, vibrant descriptions of the shop and its wares. Consumption is sexualised to the point of fetishism, the calculating owner Octave Mouret sees his customers – the ladies of Paris ‘pale with desire’ – as objects for seduction: ‘His sole passion was the conquest of Woman.’ The act of selling becomes one of erotic manipulation and the great sales that structure the novel constitute moments of collective abandon, exemplified in the final climactic sale, ‘In the trousseau department’, where:

…all discretion was abandoned: women were turned round and viewed from below, from the ordinary housewife with her common calicoes to the rich lady smothered in lace; it was an alcove open to the public, whose hidden luxury, its platings and embroideries and Valenciennes lace, deprived the senses as it overflowed in costly fantasies.

Mouret’s personal seductions are as numerous and successful as those of his shop, until of course, he meets the steadfast and ‘gentle’ Denise who will not be so easily overwhelmed. Indeed, through Denise ‘the women’ will ‘have their revenge’ as predicted to Mouret himself early in the novel.

Accompanying this strain of eroticism runs a parallel current of violence; the above description of the ‘calves’ is one of many in which the body is distorted and dismembered into fragments: ‘the mirrors made the departments recede further into the distance, reflecting the displays together with patches of the public – faces in reverse, bits of shoulders and arms’. The disturbing image of the mannequins, figures of the female body, decapitated ‘each one had a little wooden handle, like the handle of a dagger, stuck in the red flannel which seemed to be bleeding where the neck had been severed’ is emblematic of the violent commodification of the female body Mouret deals in.

The Paradise itself is figured as a machine, albeit a machine that is ‘based on the flesh and blood of Woman’ and as such it is rendered a symbol of a nascent modernity driven by capital and technology. Zola set out his intentions in his notes; he wanted to write, ‘the poem of modern activity. Hence a complete shift of philosophy: ‘no more pessimism, first of all. Don’t conclude with the stupidity and sadness of life. Instead, conclude with its continual labour, the power and gaiety that comes from its productivity. In a word, go along with the century, express the century, which is a century of action and conquest, of effort in every direction.’ This ‘effort in every direction’ is captured in the relentless expansion of the physical building even at the expense of the old, family shops in the vicinity and of course, at the expense of those families themselves. The new, specifically urban space of the department store is characterised by ‘the crush’ of the crowd and the ‘madness in the air’ that brings with it.

The productivity of Mouret’s machine is inextricable from a Darwinian brutality that sustains both the structure and the dominance of the shop. It is destructive and frequently figured as ‘monstrous’ in its mechanisation and power. Even Denise whose ‘coming was to be a revenge’ is shocked ‘by its brutal operation’. Indeed Denise who is characterised throughout as ‘gentle’ and acts as a humanising influence on both man and monster cannot stem the ‘force which was carrying everything before it.’

Inexorable progress and forward propulsion beat through the novel like the shop itself, ‘regulated and organized with the remorselessness of a machine: the vast horde of women were as if caught in the wheels of an inevitable force.’ It surges forward, driven by Mouret’s speculative approach, attention fixed firmly on the future as the present dissipates into money already made and the next sale holds promises of greater profits; The Paradise remains a machine clothed in luxurious silks – and all for a reasonable price.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

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I finished this novel yesterday. I was lying stretched out on the carpet of my living room floor at home in Kent. Continuous games of football were being booted about noiselessly on the TV and the members of my family were variously packing, travelling, napping and enjoying the sun; the family cat Luna came and watched me for a while before yawning and going to find something more interesting to do. So I lay on my stomach for a good couple of hours, utterly engrossed and hoping that no-one would notice that I was weeping.

It has been a long time since a novel has made me cry like that and perhaps an even longer time since I have read a novel with such compulsion. I purchased it absent-mindedly after reading Zadie Smith’s essay that I believe now forms the introduction to this edition (it also opens Smith’s eloquent, personal volume Changing My Mind which is lovely and worth a read in and of itself). Smith describes her first encounter with Their Eyes Were Watching God. She describes taking it “to the dinner table, still holding on to it, as we do sometimes with books we are not quite ready to relinquish”: I cannot imagine a time when I would ever want to let it go. Indeed, I’ve offered to lend it to a dear friend and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to physically part with it, not just yet anyway.

The story is that of Janie Starks who stretches “on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her.” In search of “singing bees for her” Janie sits at the front gate “waiting for the world to be made.” It is here that she kisses a boy, that “shiftless Johnny Taylor”. The reader is taken with Janie through three subsequent marriages, each one entirely different in character. I don’t want to, in fact, I won’t tell you any more about the plot because you need to (and I mean that as a real imperative); you need to read it, to feel it for yourself.

The language is astonishing in its lyricism, the opening lines of the novel, much like the moment we first meet Janie, are stunning:

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.”

The words glow quietly off the page whispering as you rustle onto the next, yes, this is something special, come and feel with us. And feel we do. In Janie we encounter a character who, as Janie’s grandmother famously points out, being a black woman at this stage of American history, “is de mule uh de world.” Zadie Smith writes that “it hurt my pride to read it” and aspects of this novel are deeply painful. I found the matter-of-fact discussions about how to beat your wife difficult to read, I also found myself shaking with fury and disgust at the nerve of that Mrs Turner woman (you’ll understand when you get there).

This makes it sound like hard work though and it is nothing of the sort. For all the practical impossibility of Janie’s freedom; that is what lies at the heart of this book. Janie’s compassion for an old donkey; the sadness you feel for her with the realisation of “the rock she was battered against”; her capacity for true “self-crushing love” and the “glow” she feels when someone (again you’ll know when get there) teaches her to play chequers rather than expecting her to watch.

Zadie Smith’s introduction discusses the connection she feels to the novel, not just as a writer-reader but as a black woman; she explores the complexity of colour-blind reading and her joy as a fourteen year old at “the marvellous feeling of recognition that came with these characters who had my hair, my eyes, my skin, even the ancestors of the rhythm of my speech.” The tributes on the back cover in addition to Smith’s are from Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Oprah Winfrey.

I am a twenty-seven year old white girl from Kent. I have no real understanding of what it is to be discriminated against, nor of the heritage that bears and I don’t want to claim a fraudulent connection with Janie Starks or Zora Neale Hurston – I am conscious of that even as I type. And yet, in spite of myself, I, like Smith, find myself moved “to say things I wouldn’t normally. Things like: She is my sister and I love her.”