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[278] Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood

” The reason they want to see me is that I am a celebrated murderess. Or that is what has been written down. ” [III 3, 22]
“…namely that, as a lunatic, Grace Marks was a sham—a view previously arrived at by myself, although the authorities of that time refused to act upon it . . . led me to deduce that she was not in fact insane, as she pretended, but was attempting to pull the wool over my eyes . . . To speak plainly, her madness was a fraud and an imposture, adopted by her in order that she might indulge herself and be indulged . . . ” [IV 9, 71]

In 1830s, Grace Marks and her impoverished family made the passing from Ireland to Canada. Her mother never saw land after Ireland petered out of the horizon and was buried in the sea. Fleeing a father who “had a mouth on him as foul as a running sewer” [V 13, 108], Grace finds a job working as a housemaid in Toronto. In 1843, at age 16, Grace Marks has been convicted for her complicity in the vicious murders of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper and mistress.

Why should she be expected to produce nothing but the pure, entire and unblemished truth? Anyone in her position would select and rearrange, to give a positive impression. [IX 37, 322]

Able pleading of the defense attorney spares her from death sentence. But her deplorable mental faculty, which, unbeknownst to anyone, is caused by grief of the loss her mother and later her best friend, has subjected her to the asylum. Reformers and spiritualists then engage in Dr. Simon Jordan to help seek a pardon for Grace. By method of suggestion and association of ideas, he hopes to re-establish the chain of thought in her, and thus to demystify the events leading to the fatal moment of her history.

They held it against me as well that I was at first calm and in good spirits, with full and clear eyes, which they took for callousness; but if I’d been weeping and crying, they would have said it showed my guilt; for they’d already decided I was guilty . . . [XI 43, 354]

Indeed, Grace Marks doesn’t even have a case before the inquest. Media have pronounced her guilty—and once people make their minds up that she has done a crime, then anything she does is taken as a proof of it. It doesn’t matter she is convicted as an accessory, nor that all could be proven against her is that she’d known of James McDermott’s murderous intentions in advance.

He is talking to people in Toronto, trying to find out if I am guilty . . . He doesn’t understand yet that guilt comes to you not from the things you’ve done, but from the things that others have done to you. [XII 46, 379]

In adopting historical facts of the most enigmatic woman of the 19th century, Atwood has not only written a complex literary discourse with psychological terrain through Grace Marks’s polyphony of voices. Although the true character of the historical Grace Marks remains an enigma, Alias Grace is an achievement in the investigation of humanity. It affords insight of male and female sensuality, religious hysteria, and political intrigues. The novel is full of revelations that conceal and fabrications that reveal.

465 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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29 Responses

  1. Ooooh I have this on the TBR and now I almost can’t wait to get my mitts on it… though I do want to read Cat’s Eye at the moment and its a bit shorter. Maybe I will give that one a go first… ooooh decisions, decisions.

    • This is my second Atwood novel. The Handmaid’s Tale was quite a (chilly) introduction to this prolific Canadian author! Then I got to meet her in Hong Kong and was introduced to many of her works. This book is a historical, psychological fiction (cross-genre). I am planning to read Cat’s Eye as well. 🙂

  2. I first read Atwood 13 yrs ago. I was stuck in the hospital for 5 weeks and climbing the walls. I begged my sister to bring me a book from home and ‘Alias Grace’ was what she brought me (said it was the thickest book on my nightstand!). I loved that it took me totally away from what was happening and absorbed me fully. of course, I then begged my sister to buy me another Atwood. She brought me ‘The Robber Bride’ and I’ve been an Atwood fan ever since.

    • I spent long period of time reading Alias Grace over four days. You’re so right about the “nourishing” nature of the book. In between chapters are quotes and clippings that give me better understanding of the historical background of the case. Consider all the responses I’ve got on this post, and that everyone recommends an Atwood book, no wonder she is so popular and beloved!

  3. Margaret Atwood is one of the few authors I have read and reread. I think I’ve read this one about three times and will probably read it again someday. It’s one of my favorites!

    • I have that she has written over 30 novels! She’s very prolific and diverse. I am exploring more of her books now that everyone has recommended a different novel. 🙂

  4. I just picked this up a few weeks ago and am looking forward to reading it. Thanks for the review.

    • Let me know what you think of the book. I picked this one up because I was trying to see which of her (many) novels got highest rating in greatest number of reviews.

  5. My TBR pile is growing and growing taller by the day. Margaret Atwood’s books are definitely at the tip of that iceberg. I can’t wait to start reading her ! Thanks for the review

    • Like I have mentioned above, Alias Grace is the one Atwood novel that has the highest overall rating over the greatest number of reviews on Amazon. I thought I couldn’t go wrong with it. I am glad I read it!

  6. wow thanks for the review, Ive read a couple of Margaret Atwood’s books but not this one. One to buy I think

  7. This sounds utterly addictive. I picked up several of Atwood’s novels in 2009 (this one as well) , but have only read The Handmaid’s Tale (which was wonderful.

    Thanks for the insightful review Matt.

    • Because it’s a historical murder case, the novel reads like a journey to search for the truth. It’s very continuous and consistent.

  8. I found this book fascinating and quite different from any other Margaret Atwood book I have read (which just demonstrates the depth of her talent), and loved that it was factually based. Thanks for the review 🙂

    • It’s brilliantly and elegantly written. Although we don’t know the true nature of Grace’s character, and that she actually was released from jail, Atwood has done an amazing job in characterizing this historical figure.

  9. I read part of this a while ago, and although the writing was absolutely gorgeous, I wasn’t able to finish it. I definitely want to revisit it soon.

    • Jenny, pour yourself a cup of tea, find a cozy corner, and read the book, let Atwood unravel, bit by bit, the story of an enigmatic murder in history. The writing is just elegant and thoughtful.

  10. I remember being incredibly obsessed with this book and desperate to know whether Grace did do it or didn’t. I’m inclined to think she’s innocent. I think this was Atwood at one of her very best.

    And welcome back. 🙂

    • To call it an obsession is just about right. I couldn’t help wanting to know what happens, especially when the session between Dr. Jordan and Grace approached the day when the murder took place. I’ve got my heart in my mouth!

  11. I loved this book! It is my favorite Atwood. Its such an excellently written and engaging novel. So glad you enjoyed it!

  12. I should give this one a go again. I tried it awhile back, and just couldn’t get into it. Atwood seems very hit or miss with me.

    Oh, and I’m very happy to see Death with Interruptions on your favorites list. I intend to read it soon. I read Blindness just over a year ago and still think about it quite often. I’m looking forward to exploring more Saramago.

    • I have heard that she is either hit or miss, but for me this book is certainly not that case. I was drawn in from the beginning, and enjoyed her pace of story-telling. As to Saramago, Blindness has been a favorite for years until Death With Interruptions. It’s very smart and unexpected.

  13. I decided about a month ago that I would really like to focus this year on getting through the novels of Margaret Atwood. I have Oryx and Crake right now, but I thin this one might be next, because I’ve heard it might be wise to take a break before Year of the Flood.

    • I’m planning to read Oryx and Crake as well. Opted for this one first because of the great number of reviews that contribute to a very respectable overall rating. (4.5/5 on Amazon).

  14. I really MUST read more Atwood. I’ve read two of her books so far and this one will probably be the next.

    I liked Cat’s Eye a lot.

    It just sounds so fascinating and your review makes me want to read it soon.

  15. […] A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook […]

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