It is 1843, and 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?
Much of the book is told by Grace herself with a great deal of the narrative taking place between herself and Dr. Simon Jordan who, in 1859, is working on behalf of a group that believes that she is innocent and should be set free. He is trying to use prevailing mental health methods to get Grace to remember her part during the murders of her former employer, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper/mistress Nancy Montgomery, which she seems to have blocked out of her memory.
Or has she? From page one up until the last page I suspected we were dealing with an unreliable narrator. And even now, after having finished the book I still can’t decide if Grace was truthful or not. This character, so finely crafted by a master crafter, had me guessing the whole time. And speaking of characterizations, it’s hard to beat this description of Dora, a housemaid:
"Dora is stout and pudding-faced, with a small downturned mouth like that of a disappointed baby. Her large black eyebrows meet over her nose, giving her a permanent scowl that expresses a sense of disapproving outrage. It’s obvious that she detests being a maid-of-all-work; he wonders if there is anything else she might prefer. He has tried imagining her as a prostitute…but he can’t picture any man actually paying for her services…Dora is a hefty creature, and could snap a man’s spine in two with her thighs, which Simon envisions as greyish, like boiled sausages, and stubbled like a singed turkey; and enormous, each one as large as a piglet.” (Page 57)
Atwood brilliantly constructs the narrative from numerous perspectives and an assortment of formats including letters, newspaper articles, legal records, poetry, third person accounts, first person accounts and Grace’s own flashbacks. In so doing, I somehow found myself questioning everything. What is the truth? Can we ever be absolutely sure?
If you like your endings tied up in a neat bow with all the loose ends accounted for, you will be disappointed. If you like a book that draws you in and leaves you questioning, well, everything, Atwood delivers in spades. I have decided that I need to reread some of her earlier books that I’m not sure I understood completely when I read them eons ago. And I will definitely reread Alias Grace because it’s the kind of book that almost demands a reread.
Atwood does a great job of creating her own fictional details around the actual facts of the crime. She creates a fictional Doctor, Dr Jordan, who interviews Grace 16 years after the crime while attempting to research criminal minds relating to insanity. Dr Jordan has been hired by a religious group that is confident that Grace is innocent of the crime that she has been imprisoned for. He becomes a secondary narrator and struggles with his own demons and sexual nature in a restrictive and proper society.
Grace claims to have no memory of the murders, but has clear memories leading up to and after the event. Many people believe that Grace is a victim of circumstances, a poor motherless child under the influence of an unsavoury character, while others believe Grace is a calculating murderess. Dr Jordan attempts to find the truth through interviews with Grace and others involved in the investigation.
I loved that Atwood didn’t try to solve the crime, and instead wrote a complicated patchwork using history and her amazing imagination. I was impressed that the ending was not what I expected!
The narrative of the book switches from the 1st person of Grace to the third person narrative of the doctor and between these narratives are letters between the characters, excerpts from contemporary papers and poetry. The switching views and narratives keeps the reading moving. I particularly enjoy this type of back and forth narrative. Atwood has done a splendid job of filling in the spaces and presenting a perfectly plausible story of what really may have happened.
I really enjoyed the book. The themes are among my favourite topics, Victorian era prisons, asylums, a madwoman, a sensational murder case, and these all make for interesting reading. The character of Grace is fully realized and we care what has happened to her and will become of her but we never really know whether she is guilty, innocent or insane. Atwood's books often give off literary airs but sometimes I think they are just great genre fiction and this one is a magnificent historical fiction. Great book!
Alias Grace is the story of Grace Marks, a woman who, at the age of sixteen, was convicted of the murders of her boss, Mr. Kinnear, and his housekeeper/mistress, Nancy Montgomery. Grace's story is true; she spent nearly thirty years in the Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario, and Susanna Moodie, a rather famous author of the mid-1800s, visited Grace in prison and wrote down her story. Atwood stumbled upon Grace while reading Moodie's Life in the Clearings, and decided to tell the story herself. To say that Atwood believes that Moodie took liberties with Grace's life would be a gross understatement; Grace's story is difficult to piece together using historical documents, as each source tells a different tale. Atwood sticks to the facts as much as possible, and where the facts are unclear, she invents her own.
Atwood is an incredibly skilled writer - her way with words is unbelievable. Alias Grace is told from about five different narrative viewpoints, as it moves from Grace's account of her life, to a third-person narrator, to a group of people writing letters to each other. Every character has his or her own tone and voice and Atwood very carefully crafts their personalities. This is a long book rich with detail - since the novel is set in Victorian times, Atwood writes in a way that mirrors Victorian life: slow, detailed, and intricate. The stories are woven together like a quilt, which is one of the overriding structural patterns in the novel.
Just an example of Atwood's writing, one that I found particularly effective:
"It's too theatrical, too tawdry, thinks Simon; it reeks of the small-town lecture halls of fifteen years ago, with the audiences of credulous store clerks and laconic farmers, and their drab wives, and the smooth-talking charlatans who used to dole out transcendental nonsense and quack medical advice to them as an excuse for picking their pockets. He's striving for derision; nevertheless, the back of his neck creeps" (p.476).
Alias Grace is full of such passages - rich in detail, historically accurate, and slyly satirical. This really was a masterful novel. After avoiding Margaret Atwood for years, Alias Grace came as a complete surprise, and I am eager to attempt another of her works.
The story of Grace Marks is one of contradiction. While Atwood relied on historical accounts when she could, the many gaps in Grace’s story and her collaborator, James McDermott, was good fodder for a fictional tale. Grace offered many renditions to the story, ultimately maintaining that she experienced amnesia about the murders. McDermott, who hung for the murders, always argued that it was Grace who masterminded the murders. Grace was found guilty, but the judges felt that she was too young, uneducated and naïve to be executed for the crime. Instead, she was sentenced to life imprisonment.
This is how we met Grace in this story – as a laborer in the governor’s house during the day and penitentiary inmate at night. A small group, believing in Grace’s innocence, asked psychiatrist Dr. Simon Jordan to interview Grace, to reach deep beneath her amnesia so the truth could be told about her involvement in the murders. Through these conversations, we learned about Grace’s childhood, career as a servant and eventually the murders.
The story, while predominantly Grace’s, often showed the slow demise of Dr. Jordan, whose life became eerily similar to Grace’s murdered employer. Dr. Jordan was torn between solving Grace’s mysteries and keeping his emotions out of the investigation. Sprinkled in were letters from his mother, which provided great comic relief for me, as she was so passive-aggressive. I probably would want to explore mental asylums in other countries, too, if I had a mother like Mrs. Jordan.
I could never shake the feeling that Grace was smarter than she wanted people to believe. Her calm, collected manner during her arrest, trial and incarceration were interpreted as “guilt,” but I saw it as a woman who was always thinking and calculating her next move. She was a fascinating character study.
I will mention that I was slightly dissatisfied with the ending. Throughout the last half of the novel, I thought the book was heading in a certain direction – but it didn’t. I don’t want to say more in case you haven’t read this book. Despite this, I would highly recommend Alias Grace to Atwood lovers, readers of women’s history and anyone who enjoys a true ‘who done it” story.
Margaret Atwood has taken this moment in history and created a novel both compelling and fascinating. Told alternately from the point of view of Grace and Dr. Simon Jordan - a doctor who is eager to uncover Grace's lost memories of the murders and determine her guilt or innocence - the story gradually reveals Grace's secrets and her complex personality.
Alias Grace is constructed with an eye to detail and contains beautiful symbolism and exquisite imagery. Atwood's use of quilt patterns both as titles for the chapters as well as clues to the mystery is brilliant. As quilts are layered and stitched together, the stitcher gradually reveals the pattern hidden in the fabric...just as Grace Marks re-constructs her life and the events surrounding that fateful day. Nothing is as it seems. For every character there is a dark side and a light side; good vs. evil; innocence vs. guilt. And even Grace tells us: '...and that is the same with all quilts, you can see them two different ways, by looking at the dark pieces, or else the light.'
Margaret Atwood once again demonstrates her ability to create memorable characters and weave a story which enthralls.
Atwood's version of the story is told partly in the voice of Grace herself and partly through third-person narrative of the experiences of Dr Simon Jordan, a young doctor in the up-and-coming field of psychoanalysis who comes to interview Grace during her imprisonment. Dr Jordan commences with the grand goal of plumbing Grace's subconscious and restoring her 'lost' memories from the day of the murders, thus settling once and for all the question of her guilt or innocence. There are two main plot lines running throughout the novel. The first is Grace's narrative, including both her day-to-day life as a prisoner and her account of her life from her childhood in Northern Ireland through the time of the murders. The second is the story of Dr Jordan, who moves gradually from brash confidence in himself, his abilities, and the worthiness of his aims, to self-doubt and explosive confrontations with a few of his own repressed demons.
Not only are the characters and plot compelling, there's quite a lot of incidental history in here as well (which is great for lazy people like me who enjoy picking up facts painlessly). Grace Marks' life took place against the backdrop of the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837, and the ongoing debate over her guilt or innocence tended to draw in issues of oligarchy versus democracy, established church versus Protestant branches, and so on. This becomes clear in the surrounding cast of characters in the novel, who all interpret Grace according to their own biases.
Margaret Atwood was first presented to me as a feminist author, so I tend to think of her first in those terms (although it's unfairly limiting). [Alias Grace] certainly has a lot of potent observations on the roles and relationships of men and women in the nineteenth century (but at no point does it feel like 'feminist politics' get the better of the story). The tension between upper- and working-class also drives the story forward, as does the fear of people (immigrants, migrant workers, the insane) generally perceived as 'outsiders.' There's this sense in which people are struggling so hard to relate to each other and failing wretchedly at it because of all the masks that they wear to deceive each other and themselves.
A big, sexy, complicated book, which I liked very much.
This book was no exception. I was amazed at the transformation of Atwood's writing style. The book takes place in 1850s, and while reading, I felt as if I could have been reading Jane Eyre or Little Women--rather than a modern author who has lived in the 1800s no more than I have.
In this book, Atwood has taken a celebrated case of double murder (which was true) and crafted a fictional world of intrigue and mystery. It was an enjoyable book. As usual, there was an underpining of feminism, and how women, lunatics and convicted criminals were treated at the time.
Even as Dr Jordan believes he's making progress with Grace, his personal life takes a turn for the somewhat bizarre. As Grace becomes more comfortable with Dr Jordan, she starts telling him her history leading up to the murders, but is she telling the truth? At what point does she deviate and acts out a part she wants him or her audience to believe? At the end of it, do we really know what the truth is? The ambiguous ending leaves us to form our own opinion as to her guilt or innocence.
This is the central question that drives the narrative in Alias Grace, a novel based on a true story that became one of the most celebrated crimes of its day. Margaret Atwood does an absolutely masterful job of recreating the full arc of Grace’s story—factually accurate in some places and creatively imagined in others—while preserving a great sense of the time and place. Her prose is sharp and affecting throughout and she embeds enough foreshadowing and plot twists to keep the story interesting. Additionally, the author exhibits a deft touch with dialogue, particularly in how those conversations reflected the mores and practices of the era. To be sure, this is ultimately a sad tale with no clear heroes and also one that will leave the reader with more questions than answers. Nevertheless, it is book that I found to be deeply satisfying.
I have to add that after finishing this, I happened to pick up Shirley Jackson's "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" and found a remarkable similarity of voice and tone (at least from the first few pages I've read so far), which is just a serendipitous coincidence for me, and an item of interest that these two towering talents happen to share a certain kind of understated but powerful narrative skill.
- cold-blooded murderess or innocent victim of the circumstances?
- prone to mental diseases and amnesia or a cunning actress?
- an honest, god-fearing, simple lady or a woman overcome by jealousy and rage, leading to murder?
Honestly, at the end of this book, I still don't know - and I feel that this is what Atwood wanted. This book is not building up to a conclusion or -so to speak - a destination. It is about the journey and the many sides to a story (which are not necessarily objective by any means). It is an enjoyable read, and a fantastic historical account - especially of the lower class historic female.
Grace is a murderess. She collaborated with her coworker to kill their master and his mistress. So the people say. So the people want to believe. Because, let’s face it, where’s the fascination in a murder committed only by a man? There’s no sensation, nothing to stir the crowds. Whereas a woman who took a life? Well, there’s the spectacle! Never mind that she may be innocent. This is a perfect chance to humiliate women, to place the blame on them and continue the tradition that started at the beginning of time...But Grace knows the truth. Or does she?
Margaret Atwood takes the story of one of the most famous female prisoners of the 19th century and weaves a masterpiece of a novel. Set in the 1840s in Canada and spanning almost 30 years, this is a confession and a fascinating journey to the mind and the life of a woman who has much to say and even more to hide. Is she a criminal? An innocent bystander? A cold-blooded killer? Is she a victim of her weak will? A small animal captured in a man’s well-constructed trap? And does anyone want to actually listen to her? When a young psychiatrist decides to dive into the darkest part of Grace’s mind, everything will change.
This is a novel that I consider perfect on every level. I’ve always believed that the finest writers can give us the conclusion at the beginning of the story and we’ll still be interested and invested in the development of the action. This is exactly what happens here. While Atwood doesn’t reveal everything at once, we have all the proper materials to ‘’guess’’ the end and there is still much space for suspense, agony and, speaking strictly for me, anger. Anger was the feeling that became my loyal companion while I was reading. Anger because of the double-standards of the time, the conviction that a woman is guilty by definition when accused, the habit of regarding women as objects for the men’s pleasure, ripe for the taking...And if we come to think of it, these notions are still alive today, in our so-called advanced era when many believe that gender equality is all done and dealt with and achieved. No, when I feel frightened each time I walk down a darkly-lit alley, each time a man sideglances at me, gender equality doesn’t exist. Forgive me if I digress but fury comes swiftly when I think that in many parts of our planet tyranny and violence against women are considered the norm, they are alive and kicking and they will never stop. And where do most of these false notions come from? Prejudice, superstition, religious fundamentalism.
‘’...and the people there love to fall down in fits, and talk in tongues and be saved once a summer, or more if available…’’
Jeremiah, one of the most enigmatic characters of the story, provides an excellent and extremely accurate description of the absurd religious panic that inflicts people of every race and every religion. The pious, God-fearing citizens look upon men to save them and are all too willing to believe in the condemnation of women. What I enjoyed in the way this theme is delivered in Alias Grace is that Atwood inserts the influence of such stereotypes in the field of Science as well. Educated men aren’t immune to prejudice and they attempt to research Grace’s case with preconceived notions in their heads. Enter Simon, the young psychiatrist who tries a different approach to understand the incidents and the tribulations inside Grace’s soul. In the process, he finds much more than he expected. I loved the way Atwood uses the newly-born ideas of Mesmerism and Magnetism and the rising of Spiritualism that became in vogue a few years later. In addition, she addresses the issue of Hysteria, the common belief that all women were prone to uncontrollable, violent fits of rage, another token of a society that refused to believe that women are actual human beings with the right to seek sexual pleasure and fulfillment. God forbid, these are principles solely belonging to men….
It’s hard not to get political when it comes to Atwood’s brilliant novels. Grace’s background is a highly troubled one. She comes from Ulster, an extremely tormented area, and becomes an immigrant to escape a country that is dying from famine and oppression. Furthermore, Canada is still shaking from the 1837 uprising and the aristocracy has become even more intolerant and cruel to those that are considered ‘’low’’ and ‘’uneducated heathens’’. In this historical and political context, we can understand how crucial are the themes Atwood addresses and how relevant they are, especially now. The gap between the wealthy and the poor, the discriminations against women, the blind faith.
Grace is a complex, intriguing character. In my opinion, she retains characteristics of the Unreliable Narrator because are we actually certain that her views on events and people are accurate? She comes across as a very sympathetic, level-headed, brave, considerate, dignified woman. She’s not afraid to express mistrust or uncertainty and has the self-discipline to keep her most ‘’controversial’’ thoughts secret until the opportune moment. Atwood takes us into Grace’s mind before she speaks and succeeds in creating a complete picture of our heroine. However, there is still an aura of mystery surrounding her and a strange, underlying sensuality and dark innocence.
Apart from Grace, we have two male characters that are equally interesting and mysterious. Simon and Jeremiah. Simon is very complex, in my opinion. Very real and perplexing. He is not free from his own demons, he has some fairly obscure ideas about sexual pleasure but he desires progress and knowledge. He has travelled extensively and believes he has all the necessary means to tackle Grace’s strange case. However, he isn’t prepared enough for what is about to come. Simon gave me much trouble as I was trying to understand him and realise his motives. He is mysterious and there is definitely a darkness inside him so he is an excellent counterpart of Grace. Jeremiah is a walking riddle. A man of the world, a magnetic presence, an enigma.
This review may come across as passionate or even politically incorrect but when books make you feel so many powerful emotions after reading a few chapters, you know they have succeeded. When the author is Margaret Atwood you know you are in the safest hands possible. This is a classic, a novel that should definitely be included in the finest of the 20th century. Oh, and certain misogynists/trolls/pseudo-scholars that have been lurking on GR lately, better stay away from Atwood’s novels, like The Handmaid’s Tale or Alias Grace. They will prove bad for you sensitive moral values and blood pressure….
“What is believed in society is not always the equivalent of what is true; but as regards to a woman's reputation, it amounts to the same thing.”