It’s 1843, and Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer and 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.
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?
At the time of writing this review Goodreads have rated this as 4.01 out of 5
At the time of my visit, there were only forty women in the Penitentiary. This speaks much for the superior moral training of the feebler sex. My chief object in visiting their department was to look at the celebrated murderess, Grace Marks, of whom I had heard a great deal, not only from the public papers, but from the gentleman who defended her upon her trial, and whose able pleading saved her from the gallows, on which her wretched accomplice closed his guilty career.
Who is Grace Marks? The simple answer to that is she is our protagonist and one of our narrators.
But I’ll ask again, who is Grace Marks? The other answer is, I don’t know.
While we get to learn a lot about Grace and her life I never feel like we actually know Grace. The real Grace that is.
If you’re reading Alias Grace because you think it’s a book about getting an answer to a ‘did she do it’ question than prepare to be surprised because that’s actually not what the book is about.
That doesn’t mean that what the book is actually about is any less for not answering that question, in fact I would say it’s more.
We go into this like one of the other characters – Dr. Jordan. In some ways we are Dr. Jordan. Our initial desire and the desire of the Dr’s is to find an answer to the question, ‘is Grace a murderess or an unwilling accomplice?’
She tells us her story and we, like the Dr., don’t have any control over what she tells us. The Dr. tries to steer her back to the subject at hand, trying desperately to invoke memories of the fateful day of the double murder but instead Grace weaves us a story of her life, in glorious and often horrific detail.
Alias Grace isn’t just the story of a murder but the story of a woman’s life before the murder and if she is a murderess than her life story goes some way to explain why.
Ultimately we want the truth and we’re going to get the truth. Sure, that may be the version that Grace had decided to disclose but its disclosed so well you’ll take it.
Grace is shown in three ways; the narration that Grace presents of herself, the additional third person ‘objective’ views of Grace via newspaper clippings and interviews with other parties and the version that Dr. Jordan sees.
For me, Alias Grace isn’t a story about a murder. It’s all about the perspectives from a variety of people in society (including the self-perspective) of the person involved in the murder.
This is why we’ll never know the truth. There’s far too many perceptions being thrown around.
I feel like Alias Grace could be part of a longer narrative timeline of Margaret Atwood’s, beginning with Alias Grace and ending with The Handmaid’s Tale especially in terms of how women are viewed and treated in society.
In The Handmaid’s Tale we are told Offred’s story and here we are told Grace’s and though their situations may be different, the themes of female friendship and rivalries and men in power and their treatment of powerless women are sadly timeless.
Even our good Dr. who is an interesting and complex character (and slightly hypocritical) in his own right uses Grace for his own purposes; she is a highly interesting case who stretches his thinking muscles and will give him acclaim.
Even from a medical perspective he can’t help but notice how beguiling she is and how attractive he finds her and that the other issue poor Grace has, she is very pretty and for a maid in a lowly position this is not a good thing.
Alias Grace also deals with themes of mental health (Grace hearing voices) and spiritualism (are the voices Grace hears the result of a mental health disorder or something more) which again makes this more than a story about murder.
For a character who can’t remember the details of something incredibly important in her life, i.e. a vicious double homicide we are treated to incredible descriptions of her life even down to her feelings of watching sunlight through the leaves. The writing from Margaret Atwood is exquisite in this respect and intricately and beautifully conveys the world that Grace inhabits and her feelings about her place in it.
I did feel that this was a bit slow in the beginning and I wasn’t too sure where it was going to go but it was a bit like cracking an egg. You hit it against the side of the bowl and make small cracks but when the shell breaks, boy does it break.
Ultimately we know Grace so well but we never know Grace and this makes me question all the perspectives of her that others have.
Is she an innocent victim lurched from one set of poor circumstances to another? Is she suffering from a mental health disorder and she genuinely can’t remember events? Has she been possessed by the angry spirit of her friend? Is she an intelligent manipulator who knows how to read people and is determined to survive at whatever cost?
I don’t know. You probably won’t know. I wonder if Margaret Atwood even knows.
Overall I found this an enjoying and compelling read and I’m now binge-watching the mini-series and loving it!