Fiction – paperback; Anchor Books; 480 pages; 1997.
Did she do it or didn’t she do it? Is she a bloodthirsty murderess, or was she simply in the wrong place at the wrong time?
These are the questions that form the driving force of this remarkable novel by Margaret Atwood, who takes this captivating true story and truly makes it her own.
Set in Canada in the nineteenth century and based on a real life crime, Alias Grace is about a teenage maid, Grace Marks, who is tried for the brutal murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his mistress, Nancy Montgomery. She is found guilty and sentenced to death but has this commuted to life imprisonment, while her ‘accomplice’ is hanged.
Grace, a poor immigrant from Northern Ireland who has cut all ties with her family, tells her story to Dr Simon Jordan in a long series of visits he makes to her prison cell. Dr Jordan, who works in the burgeoning field of mental illness, is ‘hired’ by a group of spiritualists who believe Grace is innocent and want to secure her a pardon.
But the good doctor has problems — professional, emotional and moral — of his own, and before long it is difficult to tell who is the supposed crazed criminal and who is not.
Initially I found Alias Grace a little difficult to get into. The chapters are narrated in alternate voices and formats — Grace’s ‘interviews’ with Dr Jordan involve her telling her story from the time she left Northern Ireland to the aftermath of the murders, while Dr Jordan’s story is revealed through letters written to him and by him — which take some time to propel the narrative forward. Once you understand the rhythm of the book, it gently sucks you in and I found it difficult to put down because I was itching to get to the point where Grace would reveal what really happened on that fateful day.
Atwood structures this novel in a very clever way, so that the reader is drip fed information on an almost need-to-know basis. She also manages to successfully get inside two very different heads and tells their individual stories in a convincing way (personally, I preferred Grace’s narrative, although I largely expect she was prone to exaggeration). And her writing is often beautiful. Take this example, one of my favourites, in which Grace is revealing what happened when she flees the scene of the murders:
And I thought, I am riding through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, as it says in the Psalm; and I attempted to fear no evil, but it was very hard, for there was evil in the wagon with me, like a sort of mist. So I tried to think about something else. And I looked up at the sky, which did not have a cloud in it, and was filled with stars; and it seemed so close I could touch it, and so delicate I could put my hand right through it, like a spiderweb spangled with dewdrops.
But then as I looked, a part of it began to wrinkle up, like the skin on scalding milk; but harder and more brittle, and pebbled, like a dark beach, or like black silk crepe; and then the sky was only a thin surface, like paper, and it was being singed away. And behind it was a cold blackness; and it was not Heaven or even Hell that I was looking at, but only emptiness. This was more frightening than anything I could think of, and I prayed silently to God to forgive my sins; but what if there was no God to forgive me? And then I reflected that perhaps it was the outer darkness, with the wailing and gnashing of teeth, where God was not. And as soon as I had this thought, the sky closed over again, like water after you have thrown a stone; and was again smooth and unbroken, and filled with stars.
Without wishing to spoil the ending, I have to say I am still largely undecided as to whether Grace Marks was guilty or not. Whether I missed a key element of the plot or whether this is what Atwood deliberately intended, I do not know. Suffice to say this is an intriguing and sometimes perplexing book, but it’s an entertaining one too, and it’s certainly made me more interested in reading more by this highly acclaimed author.