Book Review: Alias Grace

Alias Grace is the third Margaret Atwood book I have read. After loving The Handmaid’s Tale and hating The Robber Bride, I was uncertain whether I wanted to venture further into Atwood’s oeuvre, but Alias Grace fell into my hands used and with a high recommendation. I decided to give it a try, and I found it a fascinating read.

This book covers territory far removed from those of the other two books mentioned: it is a work of historical fiction based on a real convicted Canadian murderess, Grace Marks, who lived in Ontario in the mid-nineteenth century. Atwood’s version of the story is told from several perspectives, mostly from those of Grace and an alienist, Dr. Simon Jordan, who hopes to determine whether Grace is innocent or guilty, sane or insane. Intermixed with their narratives are letters between Dr. Jordan and others, and quotations from contemporary accounts of the events surrounding the murders of Nancy Montgomery and Thomas Kinnear, including Grace’s own confession. Up until the last, Atwood dangles questions before us: Is Grace truly amnesiac about the murders themselves? Was she out of her mind, or acting as a cold, calculating, jealous woman? Was she dragged into passive participation by James McDermott, who was quickly hanged for the murders? Was she acted on by other, unseen forces?

The narrative proceeds slowly, but with a richness of detail that lent it authenticity beyond the contemporary documentation of the crime. It was particularly interesting to me because I know very little about Canadian history, and Atwood’s narratives bring it to life. My biggest complaint would have to be the closure of Dr. Jordan’s story-line; he exits abruptly, and without closure in his relationship to Grace, because of a peripheral event in his own narrative. Most of the questions proposed by Atwood in the course of the book were left unanswered, but that doesn’t bother me so much, since several possibilities were hinted at—one of which is subtly indicated by the title—and the guilt of the actual Grace Marks, remained a point of contention even after her eventual pardon. This was a fascinating, beautifully written book, and it is one I would recommend.

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