Kimberley Long is a former Reader volunteer currently teaching English in Japan.
For my Christmas visit home I chose a book that was recommended to me years ago. At school we were split into two classes to study literature. So while I was introduced to Brian Friel and Shakespeare’s sonnets, many of my friends studied Anthony and Cleopatra, and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. It was Atwood who I finally found myself reading on my twelve hour flight back to Heathrow.
Alias Grace is, without a doubt, my friend Lauren’s favourite book, almost to the point of obsession. She has pestered me for years to read it, so when I told her last summer I had finally got around to buying it she went all glassy-eyed and stared into the middle distance. Atwood seems to have a mesmerising effect on people. I studied The Blind Assassin in my first year at university and witnessed the effect of Atwood again then. Four years on and a large number of my course mates will still list this book as one of their all time favourites. So I was excited when I pulled the book from my hand luggage and curled up to read the best I could in my cramped economy class seat.
Despite spending a whole day flying home and back it wasn’t enough even to get half way through the novel. Alias Grace isn’t a short book, but nor is it Les Miserables or War and Peace. Still it took me the full month of January to finish reading it. This is not meant as a criticism. If I really love a book I will read it in short chunks at a time, maybe only a chapter a day, hoping to prolong the experience for as long as possible. During the summer I read a six hundred page modern crime novel (which shall remain nameless) in four days because I disliked it so much. Once I’ve started reading a novel, regardless of how much I dislike it, I have to know what happens. So I will plough through it to get it out of my life again as soon as is possible. Alias Grace by comparison was to be savoured and lingered over.
My favourite thing about Atwood is the responsibility she places on the reader. When you open a novel you instantly place all your trust in the narrator, whether the protagonist, an observer, or an omniscient being kindly chronicling the tale for our benefit. With Atwood however this trust is slowly unravelled. She creates narratives where you are encouraged to question everything that takes place. Can the narrator be trusted? How significant are certain events really to the story? Is Grace insane, or cold and calculating to the point of total unfeeling? Does Mary Whitney really have such a massive influence on Grace’s life? And the most interesting point for me; does Jeremiah the Peddler really return under different guises?
And I know this is the biggest faux pas in the world of literature, but I was drawn to the cover. I couldn’t help but be intrigued by a novel that, regardless of its country of publication, features a drawing of Pre-Raphaelite model and wife of Dante Rosetti, Elizabeth Siddal.
For anyone who has never read anything by Atwood before I implore you to try her. She is certainly the author who has been recommended to me most often and her work repays careful reading. Atwood’s novels are also a marvellously productive and challenging way of passing time on ridiculously long trans-continental flights.
–By Kimberley Long