‘Alias Grace’ by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 stars

While reading Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood I felt almost like a detective searching for clues that could shed some light on the role of the main character, Grace Marks, in the murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper. This book is based on a true story, and I became rather intrigued by it while reading the fairly mysterious first chapter.

The narration of the book starts in 1851, when Grace is 24 years old. She has been in jail for eight years, since she was found guilty together with James McDermott of the two murders. While James was hanged, she is serving a life sentence at a penitentiary in Canada. They both worked at Thomas Kinnear’s house, Grace as a serving maid and James as a stable hand.

One day in 1859 she is at the parlour of the Governor’s wife, where she spends some time helping with the chores, when a doctor arrives with the aim of measuring her head. However, as he approaches, she starts screaming and is afterwards taken to solitary confinement. While there, she receives a visit from another doctor, Simon Jordan, who wants to hear everything she has to say, since he focuses on the “diseases of the mind and brain, and the nerves”.

Although the majority of people believe Grace to be guilty of the crimes she is in prison for, some, including Reverend Verringer, think she may be innocent. He wonders if hers was a case of latent insanity at the time of the murders, reason why he called upon Dr Simon, who in the future intends to open a private asylum.

His father was a wealthy mill owner, but after he died his family had to both sell the mills and the house of his childhood, and he had to abandon his project of being a rebel for a while. He is looking for a novelty in the field of mental health, so he can raise the money he needs.

Grace starts to have meetings with Dr Jordan at the Governor’s house. Despite not being inclined to talk at first, she gradually starts answering his questions as she sees fit, not always telling him everything she is thinking about. She doesn’t seem to recall the details of what happened at the time of the murders. Or does she? Is she telling the truth to Dr Simon? As Grace tells him the story of her life, it’s like we assume his position and are also trying to figure out more about her and looking for clues regarding the crime she is in prison for.

Grace was originally from Northern Ireland, what could have almost been seen as a crime, if she was not from a Protestant family. She had a hard life, had to take care of her siblings since she was really young, and was from a poor family, reason why they moved to Canada. In the first house she worked in, she met Mary, an older girl who was kind to her, expressed quite democratic views, and taught her many things, not only work-related, but also about what she could expect as a woman.

“Then she lent me her red flannel petticoat until I should get one of my own, and showed me how to fold and pin the cloths, and said that some called it Eve’s curse but she thought that was stupid, and the real curse of Eve was having to put up with the nonsense of Adam, who as soon as there was any trouble, blamed it all on her.”

The book has more than one narrator. In many chapters Grace assumes that role, allowing the reader to have access to her inner thoughts. But the story is also narrated in the third person, usually when the focus is on Dr Simon’s point of view and experiences. The plot is also developed through a variety of letters, and excerpts of news pieces and other documents.

As Grace takes the readers back and forward in time, we start realising that what was written in the newspapers about the crimes may not have been the exact truth. Whether we believe Grace to be innocent or guilty may influence the reading experience and the interpretation of what she is telling Dr Simon. An extra clue for the possible true nature of the events surrounding the murders, at least in this novel if not in real life, is on a conversation between Dr Simon and his landlady close to the end of the book. There is also quite a significant sentence in one of the letters featured in the novel:

“What you yourself may have understood, does not constitute an understanding.”

Although Alias Grace is above all a fictional look at a real criminal event, it also features many social considerations. Throughout the book, there are mentions to how some men harass women, to the improper treatment of servants by their employees, and to the imposed differences between classes. Moreover, there are also instances of expression of sensuality via thoughts and dreams.

Margaret Atwood’s writing feels effortlessly beautiful when we are presented with Grace’s inner thoughts.

“All the same, Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word – musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase.”

However, when Grace is telling the story of her life to Dr Simon, too many inconsequential details are mentioned, causing the story to drag on a bit too much and the prose to lose some of its enchantment.

Alias Grace raises many questions and makes us ponder possible answers, while comparing what the general public thought of Grace with the opinion we form about her after reading her account in the first-person. It’s not as impactful as The Handmaid’s Tale, the first book I read by Margaret Atwood, but it still is a stimulating novel.

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