Alias Grace

by Margaret Atwood

Hardcover, 1996

Call number




Doubleday (1996), Edition: First Edition, 468 pages


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?

Media reviews

Margaret Atwood has always written her characters from the inside out. She knows them: in their hearts, their bones. For many years now she has been a stylist of sensuous power. In Alias Grace she has surpassed herself, writing with a glittering, singing intensity.

User reviews

LibraryThing member brenzi
Grace Marks is an actual historical figure who was convicted of murder in Toronto in 1843. Originally given the death sentence just like her co-defendant James McDermott, the judge acquiesces to local sentiment and reduces the sentence to life in prison. In her novel, Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood
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has scoured the historical documents and done what all truly great historical fiction writers (Hilary Mantel comes immediately to mind) do: filled in the gaps in the history of the story with a compelling narrative while, at the same time, staying true to the history that is already documented. The result had me furiously turning pages well into the night.

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.
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LibraryThing member ChelleBearss
Alias Grace is a fictionalization of an actual crime that occurred in Canada in the 1840’s. Grace Marks has been imprisoned as an accomplice for a murder of her employer that happened when she was just 15 years old. James McDermott was convicted of the murder and was hung, while Grace was
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convicted and sentenced to death but was granted a stay of execution and received life in prison instead.

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!
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LibraryThing member Cait86
Alias Grace may just be the book that makes me a Margaret Atwood fan. I read The Handmaid's Tale a few years ago and enjoyed it, but never felt compelled to pick up another Atwood. However, the grade 12 class that I am teaching during my teachers' college placement is reading Alias Grace, and so I
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dutifully read it - and I am SO glad I did.

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.
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LibraryThing member kambrogi
I picked this up because it was one of the BBC Women’s Watershed Fiction choices (2004). I am intrigued by the way Atwood takes a real-life story, real people and real events, and filters them through her imagination. This is the first of her books that has really grabbed me, perhaps because she
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has a tendency to maintain distance from her characters. Here it works because she begins with a story no one has ever fully understood: the case of a 19th century working-class Canadian teenager who was convicted and imprisoned for murdering two people with the help of a man who may or may not have been her lover. The story, as Atwood tells it through the eyes of the woman, her psychiatrist, and others who wrote about her at the time is quite compelling. The realistic portrayal of immigrant life in Canada, the early science of psychiatry, asylums, prison life, journalism, fashion, social class, women’s roles and the customs of the times are equally fascinating.
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LibraryThing member mrstreme
Once again, I am at a loss for words after reading another brilliant fictional work by Margaret Atwood. This time, I was mesmerized by Alias Grace – a complex novel based on the historical figure, Grace Marks, who was convicted of killing her employer and his mistress in 1840’s Canada.

The story
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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.
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LibraryThing member writestuff
In the year 1843, at the tender age of sixteen, Grace Marks was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for her role in the slaying of her employer Thomas Kinnear, and Nancy Mongomery (Kinnear's mistress and housekeeper). The case garnered excessive interest in Canada (where the crimes occurred)
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due to Marks' uncommon beauty, her young age and the juicy combination of sex, violence and what was considered 'the insubordination of the lower class.'

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.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Smiler69
In 1843, sixteen year-old servant girl Grace Marks is spared from hanging because of her young age (unlike her presumed accomplice James McDermott) and instead convicted to life imprisonment for a double murder she doesn’t remember committing. As her sanity is in question, she spends some time in
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a mental asylum before being transferred to Kingston penitentiary and some years later, is visited by a young doctor eager to advance himself in the growing field of treatment for the mentally ill. The book centres around Grace’s narration to Doctor Jordan—both verbally and in her own mind—describing her life, from a difficult childhood in Ireland, emigration to Canada and experiences as a maid, having been forced to work from the age of thirteen, and leading up to the day of the murders and subsequent capture with James McDermott, her alleged paramour. There is no question that Margaret Atwood is a master at her craft, and here she takes a true event—Grace Marks was widely known in her time as a notorious murderess—and filling in the details, manages to make Grace’s description of her daily life and chores a compelling and captivating read. No small feat! I loved this book, my only reservation being that I guessed at the dénouement from the beginning and was hoping for a twist in the end which never came for me. Still, a very satisfying read which I recommend wholeheartedly.
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LibraryThing member Erratic_Charmer
Rather in the vein of [In Cold Blood] but with more obviously fictitious material, as the true crimes that Atwood writes of took place all the way back in 1843. [Alias Grace] tells the story of Grace Marks, a 16-year-old servant girl in Canada who was accused of the murder of her employer, Thomas
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Kinnear, and his housemaid, Nancy Montgomery. Her alleged accomplice, James McDermott, was hanged for the crimes but Grace's death sentence was commuted to imprisonment, and she spent close to 30 years in an asylum and a penitentiary.

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.
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LibraryThing member John
A wonderful book. Atwood at her best in evoking place (Ontario in the 1840s), characters (Grace Marks, convicted murderess, Dr. Simon Jordan who tries to determine if she was insane or well aware of and a participant in the murders, and a wonderful cast of assorted others), social mores of the
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time, and the harshness of life. Based on a true story (i.e. about the murders and Grace), but with considerable literary licence to develop it into a work of fiction. We are left to believe that Grace was not guilty by virtue of a split personality (a new concept in those days and certainly far from accepted wisdom). It is also a novel about the transference of desires (Dr.Jordan's affair with his landlady and his ambivalent desires vis-a-vis Grace); the force of memory and the power of rationalization or forgetting, whether deliberate or not, to shield oneself; of irony with Dr.Jordan losing his memory because of a war wound as perhaps retribution for his abandoning of Grace when he flees Kingston to get away from the landlady who is close to ensnaring him in a love/lust/murder tangle similar to what has befallen Grace; and of the sad lot of women trapped in either the materially splendid, but spiritually bankrupt, world of the upper classes where they are categorized, channelled and thwarted, or in the lower, serving classes where they are often prey to men and unable to defend themselves whether it be in a disastrous marriage, and in "being taken advantage of" by their social superiors. Ironically, however, it is the lower classes that at least have the prospect of some flexibility, although precious little at that, in the way they choose to live their lives.
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LibraryThing member cameling
Historical fiction on the life of Grace Marks, the teenage Canadian domestic help who was imprisoned on the charge conspiracy to murder Thomas Kinnear, her employer and Nancy Montgomery, the housekeeper in 1843. She spent some years in a lunatic asylum before being moved to a regular prison and was
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selected by the Governor's wife, to be escorted out daily to work in the Governor's house as a maid. After being abused by doctors, she is suspicious of a Dr Simon Jordan, who visits her regularly and interviews her, with a view to gaining access to her memories in order to understand what happened on the days of the murders.

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.
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LibraryThing member csweder
Atwood is easily becoming one of my favorite authors. I look at her books and hesitate to read them because I know once I have read it, it is one less book of hers I will have to read and enjoy.

This book was no exception. I was amazed at the transformation of Atwood's writing style. The book takes
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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.
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LibraryThing member japaul22
Well that may just be the most satisfying book with an unsatisfying ending that I've ever read. This is a brilliant tale that weaves a historical subject with a character study. Atwood delves into the mind of Grace Marks, an 18th century woman convicted of colluding with a fellow servant to kill
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her employer and the housekeeper he was sleeping with. The book focuses on Grace's time in jail being interviewed by an aspiring doctor to the insane, Simon Jordan. The entire book is a question - just how involved was Grace in the murders? The answers range from her being a young, unwitting bystander who didn't stop the murders out of fear to her being a conniving, manipulative, jealous woman who orchestrated the whole affair. In the middle is the possibility of insanity, multiple personalities, etc. In addition to the questions about Grace, we get a glimpse into the mind of Dr. Jordan, who comes off as not-so-sane himself, even in comparison to Grace. Ultimately, there are few answers in this book, but even though that in itself is unsatisfying, the book is so absorbing and interesting that it is satisfying even without a neatly wrapped up ending. This may be my favorite Atwood novel so far.
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LibraryThing member wyvernfriend
This unfolding story tells of a murder of a man and a woman through the eyes of one of the people accused of the deed. Interesting story but it did drag occasionally. The Story of the relationship between Grace and the doctor while he tries to find out what happened and she tries to understand what
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happened and the reasons behind the death, is the pivotal point of the story and interesting. Some of the tensions because of class issues is also interesting but occasionally belaboured.
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LibraryThing member xmaystarx
This was my first introduction to Atwood and I must say that I will read more of her. The book is based on a pretty simple plot line - a woman charged of murdering the man she worked as a servant for and his mistress. But Atwood made a truly interesting, not short for that matter, book surrounding
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this woman and the question of guilty or not guilty. I'm still not sure what to think of Grace and her guilt and what parts of her story she was making up for the doctors or telling the truth about. My attention was kept throughout the book and the writing was very enjoyable.
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LibraryThing member mccin68
Alias Grace. In 1843, 16 year-old Grace Marks is convicted of the murder of her employer and his mistress. the story begins with Dr. Simon Jordon being granted permission to interview and assess Grace by a local group who believe her innocent. Dr. Jordon is pioneering techniques is uncovering lost
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memories and is eager to use them with Grace. Grace tells per point of view through their sessions, touching on her sheltered but traumatizing childhood as well as the events leading up to the murders. She vaciliates between giving him what he wants to hear, deliberately witholding parts to answering honestly which furthers the mystery surrounding her. Is she an innocent child in the wrong place and wrong time or is she hardened enough to have masterminded the murders? the story never arrives at a conclusion but several interesting theories are presented near the end of the book that I wish would have been fleshed out more. I found the story line of Dr. Jordon very distracting to the overall story of Grace although I can see where his behaviors, thoughts and motivations are potential mirrors to the unspoken ones of Grace.
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LibraryThing member heidilove
This work brings me back to some of the things i like so much about atwood's writing: the characterization pace, the sense of mystery unfolding in the personal simultaneously with the plot. not bad.
LibraryThing member justsomegirl
A fascinating peek inside a woman's mind, an interesting portrayal of an historical period and place.
LibraryThing member autumn2007
An amazing story based on the life story of Grace Marks who at sixteen was convicted of the gruesome murders of her employer and his housekeeper/mistress in the 1800’s. This book was artfully crafted and interspersed with relevant poetry of the time. An absolute MUST READ that I will recommend
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and probably read again.
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LibraryThing member browner56
In Canada, in the middle of the 19th century, two shocking murders have been committed. The victims are a wealthy farmer and that gentleman’s housekeeper, who was also his mistress. Two other servants in the house, Grace Marks and James McDermott, are accused of the crimes, for which they are
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soon convicted and condemned to die. McDermott’s guilt is unquestioned and he is quickly hung. Grace is spared execution, however, due to her gender, her age, and most importantly, a lingering suspicion that she might actually be innocent. So, is Grace the manipulative murderess she was portrayed to be at the trial or was she simply an unwitting observer to someone else’s horrible actions?

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.
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LibraryThing member .Monkey.
This was really fabulous. My introduction to Atwood, and I couldn't be more pleased. This was a chunkster of a book, not much short of 600 pages, and I read it in 2 days, just couldn't put it down. Maybe it's because I'm not Canadian, or maybe it's just that old of a crime, but I had never heard of
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the true story that this novel retells. Atwood makes me want to learn more about it, though of course she's already done the research and told us all there really is to find, and there's no way to know what I really want to know! In any case, she did a fabulous job of bringing these people back to life to tell this sad story.
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LibraryThing member karenweyant
Canada's version of Lizzie Borden comes to life in Atwood's tale of Grace Marks, a young woman convicted of murdering her employer and his mistress in the 1800's. More than just a tale of true crime, Atwood explores the harsh realities of early Canadian wilderness and life.
LibraryThing member DeltaQueen50
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood delves into Canadian history for a long forgotten sensational murder case that she then proceeds to fill in, give flesh and bones to the characters, and without drawing any conclusions herself, leaves it up to the reader to decide whether Grace Marks was guilty.

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witness accounts, newspaper excerpts, letters and poems, along with various characters points of view, she tells the story of house servant, Grace Marks who is accused of participating in the murders of the housekeeper and owner of the residence she was currently working in.

That Grace had an unfortunate life cannot be denied. As to her innocence, that I am not so sure of. Was she truly a clinical split personality, was she an amnesiac or was she simply a very clever woman who hid behind the mask of ignorance and insanity. Whatever the case, she paid with thirty years before finally being released and drifting in anonymity.

This was my first Margaret Atwood and I readily admit I was nervous of trying this Canadian icon. I was pleasantly surprised at how accessible the writing was, how it very much held my interest, and how involved I got into the story, given the ambiguity. I certainly won’t be hesitant to pick up this author again.
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LibraryThing member KLmesoftly
Based on the press surrounding a set of real-life murders, this novel is told from the perspective of Grace Marks, a woman serving a life sentence for her role in the deaths of her employer and his mistress, as she tells her story to a young psychiatrist. I was immediately hooked by the story--it's
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a tough one to put down! The details of what really took place are revealed bit by bit, drawing one further and further into Grace's world. The writing style is fascinating (alternating first- and third-person sections, intersperced with actual newspaper quotes regarding the murders) and the climax is rewarding--if a bit predictable.

This isn't my favorite Atwood (that would be The Handmaid's Tale), but it's well-written and peopled with rich and interesting characters. I'd recommend it to anyone who's read and appreciated the author's writing in the past.
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LibraryThing member nancyjean19
This was the kind of book that I would suddenly realize I had read 100 pages of, nothing had really happened, but I didn't mind. It immerses the reader in both the mind of its main character, Grace, as well as in the repressed sexuality of Victorian-era Canada. Sometimes funny, sometimes pretty
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creepy, possibly a little too long, but engagingly written overall.
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LibraryThing member martensgirl
This was an enigmatic read. I loved the fact that we are never sure of Grace's involvement or whether she is suffering from mental illness. The further we go into the story, the greater the confusion. Atwood's writing is absorbing and she has created a strong, believable character.




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