Title: Alias Grace
Author: Margaret Atwood
Published: September 1st 2007
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Genres: Fiction, Crime, Historical, Mystery
Rating: 4 stars
Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor.’ Grace Marks. Female fiend? Femme fatale? Or weak and unwilling victim? Around the true story of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the 1840s, Margaret Atwood has created an extraordinarily potent tale of sexuality, cruelty and mystery.
Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace is a novel that provides a recreation of a true event in history, the murder of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper/lover Nancy Montgomery. The shocking part about the double murder of these two souls, is that their sixteen year old housekeeper Grace Marks, along with another employee of Thomas Kinnear’s, James McDermott, were charged with the crime. Atwood’s book begs the reader to consider whether or not Grace could commit this crime. There are plenty of grey areas which the reader is able to play an active role in colouring in.
In the year 1843, a young housekeeper by the name of Grace Marks is jailed for killing her employer, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper/mistress Nancy Montgomery. It almost seems unfathomable that a 16 year old housekeeper could commit such an atrocious crime. With Grace’s conviction comes much doubt. Some people are of the opinion Grace was insane, others hold her completely responsible for the crime, while others believed she may have been manipulated to commit the crime with fellow employee James McDermott. After a stint in mental asylum, Grace is now serving a life sentence for the crimes she has been charged with. Grace appears to have blocked the whole crime from her mind and it is the job of an expert, Doctor Simon Jordan to draw out the truth, in the form of a series of one on one interviews with Grace. Doctor Jordan’s methods are progressive for the time and he experiments with hypnotherapy in an effort to expose the truth once and for all on this crime. It is hoped the Doctor can help Grace gain a pardon, releasing her from the life sentence. When the Doctor comes closer and closer to the truth, what he uncovers is a complex and enthralling case. Can he help draw out the truth and put this crime to rest?
I am going to be truthful and admit that I was drawn to this book by the Netflix television series alone. I was intrigued by the series and wanted to discover a little more about this fascinating historical crime, which was what I was hoping to gain from reading the book. The book and the television series do align, I believe Atwood was involved in the screenplay of the series, which is perhaps why it remains true to the book.
What the book does offer is a great mix of mediums in presenting this story. Readers of Alias Grace receive a combination of prose styles. These include letters, legal documents, articles, patient notes, poems and Grace’s first hand recount of the events that occurred in her young life, which she relays to Doctor Jordan. In using this style of narration, Atwood keeps the reader on their toes, so that shifting through all the evidence presented becomes an interesting and active experience. I have to admire Atwood’s skill as a storyteller to bring all these aspects of a long lost case together, in the one cohesive tale.
Atwood’s historical grounding is remarkable. I enjoyed the experience of being transported to Canada in the 1800’s. I also enjoyed Grace’s thorough recount of her life, which gives the reader a picture of what life was like for those who lived in this era. Atwood charts Grace’s life from the very beginning, starting from her departure from her homeland of Ireland with her family, in search of a better life in Canada. Atwood provides a detailed account on Grace’s traumatic migration by boat to Canada, along with the ill treatment Grace received from her father, through to the places of Grace’s employment and her fateful placement as a servant to Thomas Kinnear. The book also covers Grace’s trial, incarceration and time in the mental asylum. As well as being very moving, there is a great deal of historical accuracy that emanates from the pages of this novel.
Atwood matches her well represented historical setting with richly detailed characters. There is Grace Marks, the driving force of the novel, who is deeply intriguing but often appears to be an unreliable narrator. Backing Grace up are a collection of secondary characters that all have firm place in this novel. The most compelling aspect of the characters in this novel is the relationship between Grace and Doctor Simon Jordan.
For those who like their novels wrapped up in a neat bow by the end, I would suggest this novel is not for you. This case is overwhelmingly strange and ambiguous. Atwood strives to stick to the facts but in doing so, she does not offers a concrete resolution to Grace’s case. History tells us Grace was pardoned and released, many years after she was first convicted, so perhaps that is your answer. I’m still sitting in the fence with this one and I haven’t made my mind up as to whether Grace truly did commit this crime or what her level of guilt was, if any. I’ll leave it up to you make that judgement if you select this novel to read. I greatly welcome your thoughts on this complex historical case!
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood was published on September 1st 2007 by Hachette Australia. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood, visit here.
*Book ‘a’ of the a-z author challenge 2018.