By Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Anchor Books
Genre: Historical Fiction
In Alias Grace, bestselling author Margaret Atwood has written her most captivating, disturbing, and ultimately satisfying work since The Handmaid’s Tale. She takes us back in time and into the life of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the nineteenth century.
Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders.
Dr. Simon Jordan, an up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness, is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories? Is Grace a female fiend? A bloodthirsty femme fatale? Or is she the victim of circumstances?
While significantly different from my usual reading selections, Alias Grace is a standing reminder that regardless of the past hurdles I have encountered with some of Atwood’s work, I can and do still hold a deep admiration and respect for it.
Set in the 19th century, Alias Grace follows the events unfolding after the conviction of young Grace Marks for her involvement in the heinous murder of her employer and his head housekeeper alongside stable boy James McDermott. Dr. Simon Jordan interviews Grace daily in an effort to restore memories of the fateful day she claims to have no recollection of. There are those who believe in her guilt and those who wish to see her pardoned. But whether Grace is truly innocent or indeed a manipulative and cunning murderess remains a mystery.
While Alias Grace is a work of fiction, it has been based around the real life case of Grace Marks, an Irish-Canadian housemaid who was charged in the murder of Thomas Kinnear (her employer) and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery in 1843. The trial and conviction caused a large amount of controversy as there were many who believed she was an unwilling accomplice to the murders and that James McDermott was solely responsible. She was pardoned 30 years after being sentenced and relocated to New York. The case is still shrouded in mystery.
It is hard to discuss what Margaret Atwood delivers in Alias Grace to full extent without leaving enough revelation for potential readers. This is a slower paced, character study that immerses the reader into the 19th century and explores the relationship between men and women. It touches on themes of women’s social standing and treatment as well as exploring the practices and changes occurring within the field of mental health.
Grace is a complex and perplexing character with a natural intelligence and intuition that often leaves you questioning her capabilities and motives. I found myself absorbed in her story and often less concerned with her guilt and more so with what actually happened. Dr. Jordan is equally fascinating with his youthful passion for the evolving mental health practice and asylums and sometimes questionable actions. The point of view weaves between the two with snippets of news-clippings and letters, providing a cleverly alternating perspective that manages a suspicious and uncertain narrative. All of this feeds the beautiful mystery that is Grace Marks elegantly.
“…I was shut up inside that doll of myself and my true voice could not get out.”
While the leisurely pace and sometimes disjointed narration can require an adjustment period, the end result is an unexpectedly inviting and puzzling experience that challenges the reader to confront those heavier topics and message concealed within. It is a story told in a manner that only Atwood can. Brilliantly patient, yet equally rich and rewarding.
Pairs well with an Irish Breakfast blend served with milk.