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Alias Grace: A Novel Paperback – October 13, 1997
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In 1843, a 16-year-old Canadian housemaid named Grace Marks was tried for the murder of her employer and his mistress. The sensationalistic trial made headlines throughout the world, and the jury delivered a guilty verdict. Yet opinion remained fiercely divided about Marks--was she a spurned woman who had taken out her rage on two innocent victims, or was she an unwilling victim herself, caught up in a crime she was too young to understand? Such doubts persuaded the judges to commute her sentence to life imprisonment, and Marks spent the next 30 years in an assortment of jails and asylums, where she was often exhibited as a star attraction. In Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood reconstructs Marks's story in fictional form. Her portraits of 19th-century prison and asylum life are chilling in their detail. The author also introduces Dr. Simon Jordan, who listens to the prisoner's tale with a mixture of sympathy and disbelief. In his effort to uncover the truth, Jordan uses the tools of the then rudimentary science of psychology. But the last word belongs to the book's narrator--Grace herself.
From Publishers Weekly
Intrigued by contemporary reports of a sensational murder trial in 1843 Canada, Atwood has drawn a compelling portrait of what might have been. Her protagonist, the real life Grace Marks, is an enigma. Convicted at age 16 of the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper and lover, Nancy Montgomery, Grace escaped the gallows when her sentence was commuted to life in prison, but she also spent some years in an insane asylum after an emotional breakdown. Because she gave three different accounts of the killings, and because she was accused of being the sole perpetrator by the man who was hanged for the crime, Grace's life and mind are fertile territory for Atwood. Adapting her style to the period she describes, she has written a typical Victorian novel, leisurely in exposition, copiously detailed and crowded with subtly drawn characters who speak the embroidered, pietistic language of the time. She has created a probing psychological portrait of a working-class woman victimized by society because of her poverty, and victimized again by the judicial and prison systems. The narrative gains texture and tension from the dynamic between Grace and an interlocutor, earnest young bachelor Dr. Simon Jordan, who is investigating the causes of lunacy with plans to establish his own, more enlightened institution. Jordan is hoping to awaken Grace's suppressed memories of the day of the murder, but Grace, though uneducated, is far wilier than Jordan, whom she tells only what she wishes to confess. He, on the other hand, is handicapped by his compassion, which makes him the victim of the wiles of other women, too?his passionate, desperate landlady, and the virginal but predatory daughter of the prison governor. These encounters give Atwood the chance to describe the war between the sexes with her usual wit. Although the narrative holds several big surprises, the central question?Was Grace dupe and victim or seductress and instigator of the bloody crime??is left tantalizingly ambiguous. Major ad/promo; author tour.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top customer reviews
Read from February 12 to 17, 2016
I only know of Margaret Atwood's work fromThe Handmaid's Taleand Oryx and Crake. One I loved; the other, I didn't. I would put Alias Grace between the two. Admittedly, I had a hard time getting interested in the book at first. But, Ms. Atwood pulled me into Grace's story with her vivid descriptions and the strangely flat affect of the main character. Using the device of adding poetry, bits of letters, book excerpts, and court transcripts (in this book) to advance the plot and to present differing views of characters isn't something I usually find compelling. It is just that--a device. However, that device is used well and appropriately in Alias Grace.
Because I didn't read any reviews, I didn't realize until I read Atwood's notes at the end of the book that Grace was a real person, and that this book was based upon real events. (That made some internet research necessary for me.)
The reason I kept reading was Grace. I have never been so intrigued by a character with such a flat affect and a seemingly two-dimensional personality. I was longing for the REAL Grace to appear. Atwood leaves the reality of Grace to the reader.
As a history buff who is particularly interested in the 19th century, I felt that Atwood did a good job of presenting the varied treatments used for the insane. She also addresses the movements to reform asylums and penitentiaries, as well as religious reform during the period. Grace, herself, thwarts the efforts of the doctors to "cure" her. Dr. Jordan becomes the inverse of Grace. He falls into a sort of madness as she climbs out of hers. Atwood also addresses the intense interest of the period in spiritualism--through Grace, through Dr. Jordan, through Jeremiah, and through the "good" women in the book.
I felt the connection to The Handmaid's Tale in the moralistic view of life presented by the religious figures in this book. Grace, herself, could have been a handmaid.
At age 15/16, Grace Marks was convicted of killing her employer and his mistress with a fellow member of “the help”, James McDermott. Grace’s trial was highly publicized across Canada, the US, and Europe (she was an Amanda Knox of her time, if you will, more on that later.) Her story soon became both sensationalized and romanticized, and the true story seemed to fall by the wayside as the years went on.
Throughout Alias Grace, Atwood illustrates a system inherently skewed against someone like Grace because of her sex, age, and socio-economic status. At one point, a character notes that if Grace had come from a wealthy family her “madness” wouldn’t have been handled as it truly was. After the murder trial, Grace’s death sentence was changed to life in prison. However, for the first part of her imprisonment she was committed to an asylum, where Atwood alludes to abuse and sexual assault. I do not doubt it of that period, especially with a woman in that situation.
Alias Grace is a framed story, with Grace recounting her side of the story to young Dr. Simon Jordan. Dr. Jordan has foregone a traditional medical practice in favor of studying the mind and mental illness. As a forerunner of the field (although Dr. Jordan is fiction), he seeks to prove Grace’s innocence by uncovering the truth of the events, as well as Grace’s mental state. It goes without saying that in the 19th Century, the majority of mental illnesses were not yet “discovered”, researched, and diagnosed–thus, the individual likely would have been locked up and forgotten.
I particularly enjoyed Grace’s friendship with fellow maid Mary Whitney, as well as her doctor-patient relationship with Simon Jordan. Mary Whitney is often a foil to Grace; an outspoken young woman in a time when such behavior was viewed with suspicion. In fact, Grace and Mary were so close that I sometimes wondered if there was a Fight Club situation going on with them. I won’t get into spoilers, but there is a hypnosis event that occurs toward the end of the book that will both jolt and chill the reader. For some reason, and perhaps just because of my own world view, I did not go into this book thinking Grace was guilty. On the contrary, I viewed her as an innocent up until the hypnosis, and even after that I wasn’t entirely sure of its validity. I know Atwood is fond of using isolated, perhaps unreliable narrators (i.e. pedestal in Handmaid’s Tale in which we don’t get the full picture, just her perspective). In reality, no one is truly sure if Grace was guilty or innocent. Although the system worked against her, much of the public opinion was that she was innocent–an opinion which would later precipitate her pardon after 29 years in prison. The reader often aligns with Dr. Simon Jordan’s evaluation of Grace, as we are figuring her out alongside him. And in the end, even we do not know the truth.
Simon was an interesting character in his own right, as there are a few chapters from his point of view and even letters from and to him from family members and colleagues. If Simon is reflective of the reader, then we along with him are brought face to face with what anyone might do, or could do, in Grace’s situation. Can dreams and the unconscious so heavily influence our waking actions?
Atwood’s main theme seems to be a comment on society’s pre-conceived notions about women, especially those imprisoned: if a woman is young and pretty, are people more inclined to believe her innocence? And if a woman is old and ugly, does that make her guilty? At the same time, can society accept a young and pretty woman to be evil enough to manipulate people into believing her while she did the crime after all? Is society threatened by a clever woman, full stop, and would they inherently be suspicious of her because of that trait? If Grace had not been so young and pretty, would she still have been given a life sentence? Perhaps if she was ugly she would have been hanged, because society is apt to treat women who do not align with traditional beauty standards poorly. If James McDermott was not involved at all, could society have accepted that Grace may have done it all herself? If James McDermott was not involved, would society still think Grace a manipulative whore or a besotted lovesick girl? Femme fatale or innocent maiden? These two roles are often perpetuated not only in media, but in our society as a whole, as if a woman cannot be anything but one of these two archetypes and nothing more. The greater point I believe Atwood is trying to argue is that women are more complex than falling solely into one category. And the people judging Grace Marks clearly wanted her to fit into one box, regardless of facts vs. the desired narrative. But women cannot be seen as one or the other, nor sensationalized or romanticized, cast entirely aside nor placed on a pedestal. Rather, women should be viewed with all strengths and weaknesses in tact.
Sadly, we will probably never know the truth about Grace Marks, but Atwood’s novel calls attention to issues still prevalent today. How we view Grace will inevitably reflect our own worldview, as it was at the time of Grace’s trial. People will always believe what they want to believe, regardless of the truth.