Sunday, July 13, 2008

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (Jill)

Alias Grace
By Margaret Atwood
Completed July 13, 2008

Once again, I am at a loss for words after reading another brilliant fictional work by Margaret Atwood. This time, I was mesmerized by Alias Grace – a complex novel based on the historical figure, Grace Marks, who was convicted of killing her employer and his mistress in 1840’s Canada.

The story of Grace Marks is one of contradiction. While Atwood relied on historical accounts when she could, the many gaps in Grace’s story and her collaborator, James McDermott, was good fodder for a fictional tale. Grace offered many renditions to the story, ultimately maintaining that she experienced amnesia about the murders. McDermott, who hung for the murders, always argued that it was Grace who masterminded the murders. Grace was found guilty, but the judges felt that she was too young, uneducated and na├»ve to be executed for the crime. Instead, she was sentenced to life imprisonment.

This is how we met Grace in this story – as a laborer in the governor’s house during the day and penitentiary inmate at night. A small group, believing in Grace’s innocence, asked psychiatrist Dr. Simon Jordan to interview Grace, to reach deep beneath her amnesia so the truth could be told about her involvement in the murders. Through these conversations, we learned about Grace’s childhood, career as a servant and eventually the murders.

The story, while predominantly Grace’s, often showed the slow demise of Dr. Jordan, whose life became eerily similar to Grace’s murdered employer. Dr. Jordan was torn between solving Grace’s mysteries and keeping his emotions out of the investigation. Sprinkled in were letters from his mother, which provided great comic relief for me, as she was so passive-aggressive. I probably would want to explore mental asylums in other countries, too, if I had a mother like Mrs. Jordan.

I could never shake the feeling that Grace was smarter than she wanted people to believe. Her calm, collected manner during her arrest, trial and incarceration were interpreted as “guilt,” but I saw it as a woman who was always thinking and calculating her next move. She was a fascinating character study.

I will mention that I was slightly dissatisfied with the ending. Throughout the last half of the novel, I thought the book was heading in a certain direction – but it didn’t. I don’t want to say more in case you haven’t read this book. Despite this, I would highly recommend Alias Grace to Atwood lovers, readers of women’s history and anyone who enjoys a true ‘who done it” story. ( )

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