Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

I’m incredibly glad that I have finally got around to reading some of the Atwood novels that have been gathering dust on my shelves for years. Lady Oracle, The Handmaid’s Tale, and now Alias Grace have all been enthralling, intelligent and page turning reads that have reminded me of just how brilliant Margaret Atwood is, and I am now determined to read everything she has written. Happily I have Cat’s Eye and Oryx and Crake sitting prettily on my shelf, and hopefully I will get time to read them both before I jet off to my new life in the Big Apple. Alias Grace is based on the true story of  the murders of a Mr Kinnear and his pregnant housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in 1840’s Canada. Two servants; James McDermott and Grace Marks, were convicted and sentenced to death for the murders. McDermott was hanged, but Grace was spared, and given life imprisonment. Intrigued by the story and by the opposing contemporary public opinions towards Grace, Atwood decided to write her own creative retelling of Grace’s story. She has done a marvellous job, writing a phenomenally intelligent, thought provoking book that touches on so many different issues to do with truth, and perception, and identity, that I couldn’t possibly hope to do it justice in just a short blog post.

The basic plot centres around Dr Simon Jordan, an enthusiastic young American doctor with an absorbing interest in the treatment of the mentally ill. He is intrigued by the story of convicted young murderess Grace Marks, incarcerated for life in Kingston Penitentiary, near Toronto, for her part in the murders of her former employer and his housekeeper. Grace, who was just 15 at the time, claims to have no memory of the murders, and has since suffered bouts of hysterical ‘insanity’ than have seen her placed in an asylum for a brief period. Due to Grace’s youth and good looks, she has several admirers who are convinced of her innocence and are campaigning to get her released, but the evidence against her is damning. Reverend Verringer, who lives locally to the Penitentiary, and is the ringleader of the campaign to free Grace, hears of Simon’s reputation and interest in the case and requests him to come to Kingston to make a study of her. He, and the other members of his Committee, are convinced that Simon will be able to use his psychological methods to draw out Grace’s hidden memories and thus prove her innocence. Simon eagerly takes on the challenge, but it proves to be far less straightforward than he initially anticipated.

The story is told in chapters that alternate between Grace’s first person narration of her life; from her impoverished upbringing in a rural Irish village to the family’s emigration to Canada, and then on to her various jobs as a servant in well to do homes in the Toronto area; third person narration of Simon’s life and experiences; and also letters written to and from various characters in the story. It is an intriguing narrative, jumping from the lively, youthful and fascinating voice of Grace, whose life, despite its ordinariness, is so evocatively told that it cannot help but interest, to the more staid and conflicted voice of Simon, who finds himself confused, harried and trapped in a foreign town, unsure of his abilities, depressed about his circumstances, and hopelessly mixed up in various unsuitable love affairs. While being swept up in the lives of the characters and their experiences of a 19th century, newly built Canada, the reader must also contend with trying to work out whether Grace is as trustworthy as she appears, and what the motives of those trying to prove her innocence are.

Young, pretty, polite, adept at needlework; Grace is not the monster the press made her out to be at her trial. However, there is no smoke without fire, and Simon’s correspondence with other doctors who have treated her show a cunning, devious and untrustworthy character that Simon cannot reconcile with the gentle Grace he has found himself falling in love with. Are Grace’s memories being wilfully hidden? Is she a wicked, jealous woman, moved to murder in order to get her own back on a woman she hated, or is she an innocent victim of an amorous fellow servant, whose own murderous desires could have resulted in her own death had she not appeared to side with him? Is her innocence suspected due to her good behaviour, or merely because her supporters are unable to stomach the idea that a pretty young girl could harbour murderous instincts? With the only other witnesses dead, Grace’s freedom depends on the impression she can give to the learned men sent to help her, and so can anything she says be taken as truth?

To say I loved this would be a massive underestimation. It’s such a clever, subtle, thought provoking novel that also manages to be immensely entertaining and involving. It reminded me a little of The Children’s Book in that it attempts to throw in a lot of 19th century concerns for good measure; mesmerism, spiritualism, women’s roles, etc, but unlike A S Byatt’s rather laboured attempts at doing so, in Alias Grace they felt a natural part of the story rather than shoehorned additions. Each chapter is named after a quilt pattern, aptly related to the story that unfolds; Grace is an accomplished quilter, piecing blocks in the Governor’s house while she has her talks with Dr Jordan. This domestic activity, so useful, so proper, is subtly undermined by the often violent names of the pattern – Jagged Edge, Broken Dishes – hinting at the frustrations felt by their makers, confined within the domestic sphere, with nothing else to do but make quilts. Innocent, beautiful, useful, they appear harmless objects at first glance, but beneath the surface they are bloodied from pricked fingers, filled with the repressed anger and boredom of women, trapped by the confines of wealth, or equally trapped by the confines of poverty, desperate for a life of freedom from circumstances they are not empowered to control. So many women in the novel are imprisoned; not literally, like Grace; but metaphorically, in a prison of society’s making, and also of their body’s making, denied the liberty of movement, of work, of independence, that their male contemporaries take for granted.

Grace, like the quilts she makes, is, on the surface, an innocent, pretty, harmless young girl. This is what those around her wanted to believe; heaven forbid that the Victorian ideal of innocent femininity could be torn asunder by the realisation that yes, some women are violent, are capable of hate, of murder, of brutality. Instead of facing up to the truth that women have hearts and minds just as liable to commit the basest crimes of humanity as men, Reverend Verringer and his committee seek to transform Grace from murderess to innocent maiden, giving her a history and personality that is no more her own than the one she displays to Dr Jordan. Her aliases are many; for she is a construction of a girl created not just by her own attempts to portray herself as a wide eyed innocent, but also by those around her, desperate to see her vindicated and their naïve beliefs about the angelic qualities of womankind confirmed. For what does the truth of Grace’s actions really matter, when a comforting status quo needs to be maintained? It begs the question of who are any of us, really, but a number of people, a number of aliases, created to conform to the needs and expectations of different people and situations that surround us. Is there ever one narrative, one interpretation, that can adequately portray the depths of a human soul? In Grace’s case, it would certainly seem not, as by the end of the novel, no one is any the wiser of her innocence or guilt than they were at the start.

ps. The winner of A Mile of River is Gill! Congratulations!

32 comments

  1. What an amazing write up — I have yet to read any Atwood novels, but have joined a read along at the end of August to read The Handmaid’s Tale. I couldn’t wait for that to begin, and now I’m even more excited to dive into Atwood’s storytelling, and will follow it up with Alias Grace as well!

    1. Thanks Natalie! The Handmaid’s Tale is excellent, but I enjoyed Alias Grace even more! You should definitely read it afterwards – after reading these two you’ll be an Atwood fan for life!

  2. Your reviews are so rich in detail — I love ’em. This book was just recommended to me when I asked blog readers to suggest Orange Prize nominees that I should read. After reading your review, I’m convinced! And by the way, your recent review of The Handmaid’s Tale was also excellent; I shared it with my daughter who was assigned this book as summer reading for her English course. Of course now I simply must read that one as well!

  3. Thank you so much for the book – I am really looking forward to reading it after your review. I do appreciate your generosity.

  4. I started this and was bothered by how unenlightened I felt about Grace by the middle, so I gave up. Plus it was due at the library. It’s not that I need everything nicely spelled out for me, but I like being able to form an opinion. Did you find yourself feeling one way or the other about Grace’s guilt, or did you truly have no idea?

    1. I see what you mean, Jenny. I think Atwood keeps it purposely ambiguous as I don’t think she herself came to any conclusion. There are a few paragraphs that make me think she leaned towards a certain opinion but I can’t be sure. Personally, just from reading Alias Grace and nothing else about the case, I think Grace was far more complicit in the murders than she let on. She had the opportunity to warn people and also to leave and she didn’t take it, so…take from that what you will. Of course there would have been an element of fear, but if she really had wanted to stop McDermott and also get away from the scene of the impending crime, she could have done.

  5. I’m at the beginning of an Atwood kick too! I just read Cat’s Eye and loved it. Read the Handmaid’s Tale last year and loved it. Have Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin on my shelves. Can’t wait to get to them both, this post has only made me more eager!

    1. Atwood has a way of wanting you to read more and more after each novel, doesn’t she? I haven’t read Cat’s Eye yet but I’ve heard it’s brilliant and it’s waiting on my shelf. The Blind Assassin is excellent as well – you have much reading joy ahead of you!

  6. For some strange reason I have taken Atwood and put it down again (several times). Maybe its time I got over my hesitancy and took the plunge.

    1. Mystica, I am the same – I have struggled with an apathy towards her in the past, often because I couldn’t be bothered to tackle a big book that was going to make me have to use my brain! But on each occassion it has been totally worth it, so I encourage you to take the plunge! Alias Grace would be an excellent place to start.

  7. Alias Grace has been one of my favourite Atwood novels so far; it is intelligent and captivating. I have Cat’s Eye lined up to read soon and then possibly The Robber Bride.

    I think I read somewhere that you haven’t read any Sarah Waters, is that correct? If so, I think you would really enjoy Affinity, which is similar in some respects to Alias Grace and possibly influenced by it.

    1. Welcome back Claire! Oooh The Robber Bride is brilliant, I think you will love that – I have yet to read Cat’s Eye but I’m hoping to squeeze it in before I leave my bookshelves behind for a year!

      I’ve read Fingersmith but that’s it. I enjoyed it, but I have a bit of a prejudice towards her for some reason. She’s my female Ian McEwan! Maybe because she’s so popular! However Affinity does sound good and I am sure I’d enjoy it – one day I’ll get around to it and I’m intrigued by the comparison to Alias Grace.

  8. This is clearly a case of taking what is in my own backyard for granted. I’ve handled this book so many times over the years and never even bothered to find out what it is about! It has taken someone from across the Atlantic to point out just how wonderful it is. My experience with readers here is that you either love Canadian authors or you discount them, there isn’t much in between.

    I’m quite excited about bringing this one home with me…and soon! Thanks for kicking me out of my comfort zone.

    1. Don’t worry Darlene – this has been sitting on my shelf since I bought it in Strand Books in NYC when I was 19…5 years ago!! That’s interesting about Canadian authors…I don’t think I’ve read many myself but then I’m not Canadian so…I think if I were Canadian, I’d feel more obliged to!

      Good! I know you will really enjoy this Darlene!

  9. Congrats to Gill, who is in for some good reading.

    This was so interesting, Rachel. I’ve not read this one of Atwood’s and will have to look it up someday soon. Great review, as always, and now I’m off to a day of shopping with our weekend houseguests.

    1. I’m so pleased you found this interesting, Penny! I hope you read Alias Grace at some point, because I think it would really intrigue you. Hope your weekend was lovely!

  10. Wow what a fantastic book this sounds. (Reminds me a little of The Secret Scripture and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox but much much bigger – so am sure to love it.) I had this lined up to read in the next month or so but with all else going on its one I will be taking to Brazil instead!! Thanks for such a marvellous review of it.

    1. Oh it really is! Interesting comparisons – I’ve been meaning to read The Secret Scripture for ages so maybe I’ll pick it up now! What a great idea – this would be a perfect plane book to take your mind off the flight if you’re a nervous flyer!

  11. I love this! This is my favourite Atwood and that’s quite a feat considering most of her books are brilliant. I lost my copy long ago but yesterday I found one for sale. Of course, I snatched it up and I’m looking forward to revisiting it.

  12. Great review. This is one of my favourite books. It’s an amazing and ripping read. I remember being incredibly obsessed with it and wanting to find out more about the case. I’m also optimistic and believe Grace is ultimately innocent…

    1. Thanks Mae! I think it has become a real favourite read of mine as well, and I’d love to revisit it again one day. I want to find out more about the case too! It’s difficult to come to any real conclusion just from reading Alias Grace…as I said to Jenny above, I did feel she could have done more to prevent it if she had REALLY wanted to!

  13. I was totally overwhelmed when I first read this, bewildered and intrigued. You have written about it beautifully and a fantastic review. I was left at the end not knowing the truth, not knowing who the real Grace was – in fact I think we all are. By far and away my favourite Atwood

    1. Bewildered and intrigued are perfect words to describe it, Elaine! Thank you – I’m glad you enjoyed the review! I kind of like the fact that nothing was resolved – I was expecting a clear cut answer and though part of me wanted it, and wanted Grace to be innocent, at the same time, I enjoyed being able to mull over the book and pick out my own conclusions. I haven’t read all of Atwood’s work yet but I think this is my favourite so far!

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