Sunday, 3 August 2014

Helen Hagemann’s Prose class resumes at the Fremantle Arts Centre on Friday 8th August.  The class will read 2 excerpts, one from Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace and the other from Amanda Curtin’s novel Elemental. Writing exercises and discussion will revolve around the placement of history (whether true or made-up) in fiction. For the short story writer the aim will be to include some historical, social or contemporary event/news within the narrative.  Note: Class fee increase, $25 OOTA  -  $30 NON-OOTA. Venue: Room 2 Upstairs, Fremantle Arts Centre @ 10.00am

New York Times Review of Alias Grace
There's nothing like the spectacle of female villainy brought to justice to revive the ancient, tired, apparently endless debate over whether women are by nature saintly or demonic. Unleashed by ghastly visions of the angel of the house clutching a knife or pistol, a swarm of Furies rises shrieking from our collective unconscious, along with a flock of martyrs. Meanwhile, our vengeful passions or pious sympathies are never so aroused as when the depraved criminal or unjustly slandered innocent happens to be touchingly young and attractive.
One such alleged miscreant -- a double murderess, no less -- is at the heart of Margaret Atwood's ambitious new novel, ''Alias Grace.'' Its protagonist is a historical figure, the notorious Grace Marks, a handsome but hapless Irish immigrant who worked as a scullery maid in Toronto in the 1840's. At the age of 16, she was convicted of abetting the brutal murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his pregnant housekeeper and paramour, Nancy Montgomery. The question of Grace's innocence or guilt has always been in some doubt -- a matter that Ms. Atwood deftly re-examines through the lens of what we have since learned about the traumatized psyche.
''Alias Grace'' has the physical heft and weighty authority of a 19th-century novel. In its scope, its moral seriousness, its paradoxically ponderous and engrossing narrative, the book evokes the high Victorian mode, spiced with the spooky plot twists and playfully devious teases of the equally high Gothic -- the literary styles of the period in which the book is set.
Margaret Atwood has always had much in common with those writers of the last century who were engaged less by the subtle minutiae of human interaction than by the chance to use fiction as a means of exploring and dramatizing ideas. So, after reading her novels, we may find it harder to recall her characters than to remember the larger issues their destinies reflect: the tidy convergence of misogyny and totalitarian social control in ''The Handmaid's Tale,'' the machinations of female power and malice in ''Cat's Eye'' and ''The Robber Bride.'' Part of what's interesting about ''Alias Grace'' is that among the themes it addresses (guilt and innocence; conscience and consciousness; Victorian notions of criminality, insanity, gender and class) is the irreducible and unique mystery of the individual personality.
Who better to tackle this puzzle than Simon Jordan, a well-meaning young doctor from Massachusetts employed by a committee of pious do-gooders petitioning the Canadian Government to pardon the unfortunate and (after 15 years in prisons and asylums) possibly rehabilitated Grace? Despite the confession extracted from her at the time of her arrest, she claims to have no memory of her part in the murders committed by the surly hired hand, James McDermott, her co-worker and purported lover. Was she an active participant or a horrified witness? Fired by scientific curiosity, armed with the latest theories about mental illness, Dr. Jordan sets out to help Grace retrieve the memories that shock and damage have erased.
The novel is told in sections that alternate Grace's point of view with a third-person narration closely focused on Simon Jordan. For the most part, the servant girl's hair-raising story unfolds through long interviews, during which the doctor urges her to reflect upon her life. Grace's gloriously commonsensical, observant, often lyrical perspective guides us through her impoverished childhood, her rough trans-Atlantic passage and her tranquil interlude in service among the Toronto bourgeoisie -- all the way to the fateful sojourn at the country house in which Thomas Kinnear lives in sin with Nancy Montgomery.
Much of this is beautifully written and convincingly imagined. Ms. Atwood manages the considerable achievement of finding a voice for Grace -- and a tone for her narrative -- that doesn't seem mannered, anachronistic or archaic. With startling authenticity, she renders, for example, the delirious joy that a fresh red radish or a newly plucked chicken offers a woman who has survived on prison fare. Arguably, the book's great strength lies in its elegant and evocative descriptions of the domestic activities that once commanded the full attention of women from the less privileged classes:
''When we had a wash hanging out and the first drops began to fall, we would rush out with the baskets and gather all in as quickly as we could, and then haul it up the stairs and hang it out anew in the drying room, as it could not be allowed to sit in the baskets for long because of mildew. . . . The shirts and the nightgowns flapping in the breeze on a sunny day were like large white birds, or angels rejoicing, although without any heads. But when we hung the same things up inside, in the gray twilight of the drying room, they looked different, like pale ghosts of themselves hovering and shimmering there in the gloom.''
Review of Elemental
In her final years, Meggie Tulloch writes her life story as a gift to her granddaughter. From her childhood in rural Scotland at the start of the twentieth century to her youth in fisheries gutting herring and her emigration to a young Fremantle, Meggie fills exercise books and letters with stories for her Laura-lambsie.
In this act of life-writing, Amanda Curtin’s Elemental looks at memory and family history as narrative. ‘There’s no-one can tell a story true,’ Meggie Tulloch writes, worrying over what to include and what to omit. At times, when experiences are too hard to divulge, she drops into third person, using story as proxy. Much like Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Elemental draws Meggie’s act of writing as cathartic: an exorcism of demons from family history, paired with an understanding that truth can never be told in its entirety.
Although the novel is divided into parts as per the four elements, water is the strong point that holds Elemental together. In Meggie’s childhood Scotland, water is held in the wind with grit, salt bites at wounds, and stings are wrapped in bandages damp with vinegar. ‘The sea is a witch,’ Meggie’s Granda warns, ‘a witch an’ a mother.’ Throughout the book this depiction of the ocean as both antagonist and carer rings true. The sea provides refuge for Meggie, giving her work and, later, a new life in Australia, but it is also a space in which the darker parts of the Tullochs’ history takes place.


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    Writing at the Centre is an independent writing class conducted each Friday at the Fremantle Arts Centre, Print Room, upstairs in the main building.


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