4 out of 5 stars
From the moment I started reading Alias Grace it was like putting on a favorite old sweater. Margaret Atwood’s writing just does it for me. Alias Grace is the fourth book by Atwood I’ve read, and it only made me want to go out and buy all the others and read nothing else for the next months. I wouldn’t say that this is my favorite novel by Atwood–I think that special place in my heart belongs to The Handmaid’s Tale orThe Blind Assassin–but it is certainly written in that characteristic Atwood style that I love so much.
The novel is based on a true crime story that took place in the mid-nineteenth century in Canada. Grace Marks, alias Mary Whitney, was accused together with her alleged lover, James McDermott, to have violently murdered Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. Although Grace professed during the trials to being unable to remember having committed the murders, she was still convicted of the crime. McDermott was sentenced to death, and Grace was sentenced to life in prison.
Grace appears to be a mild-mannered woman and is a trusted inmate in the prison, and is even allowed to work as a servant in the governor’s house. Although she is largely trusted, she battles with mental illness and is intermittently admitted as a mental patient throughout her time in prison. Dr. Jordan is intrigued by her story and comes to interview her in the hopes of getting to the bottom of her memory loss and discovering what truly happened at Mr. Kinnear’s residence on that fateful night.
The true story of Grace Marks remains elusive even today. There is much speculation about whether or not Grace was indeed guilty of murder. Atwood’s Alias Grace does not shed any light on these issues but rather raises questions by drawing on big themes and making Grace perhaps even more enigmatic than before. Atwood subtly places the hardships of women, especially working-class women, before the reader, demonstrating how little choice women had at the time. The novel’s plot revolves heavily around the pervasive occurrences of sexual abuse that seemed to be all too common in Grace’s line of work as a servant in middle- to upper-middle class households.
There is an emphasis on what could be considered traditionally “women’s work”. Grace is interested in sewing, particularly in sewing quilts. The idea of piecing together quilts that tell a sort of story and symbolize something altogether deeper than their beautiful appearance reflects in the telling of Grace’s story to Dr. Jordan. Grace is known for her expert ability to sew–she can sew with remarkably small and nearly undetectable stitches. She is equally as skilled at weaving stories in my opinion. The reader sees that Grace crafts her story deliberately, but yet, Atwood never really lets the reader discover Grace’s truth (at least not as far as I could tell).
Like in many of her other novels, Atwood uses a number of intertextual devices, many of which actually refer to the real-life trial of Grace Marks and Thomas Kinnear. These additions add to the story as a whole and ground the major themes in reality, leaving the reader to reflect not just on the story, but on society in a wider context.
On the whole, I really enjoyed reading this novel. There is something about Margaret Atwood’s writing that just speaks to my soul. The writing is beautiful, and as is true for all of the historical fiction I’ve read by Atwood, it makes you think deeply. It spurs the reader to not only try to puzzle out what is happening within the pages and to draw links between the various events within the novel, but it also makes you reflect on big issues in society, both historical and contemporary.
I whole-heartedly recommend this book to lovers of Atwood. You won’t be disappointed by this one if you’ve enjoyed other historical fiction by Atwood. I also recommend this book for true-crime fans or lovers of gothic fiction. And finally, if you like books that make you think, then definitely go for Alias Grace or another of Atwood’s historical fiction works.