Duplicity or distortion?

Book Review of “Alias Grace” by Margaret Atwood

4caf4-alias2bgraceIn 1843, Grace Marks and James McDermott were both convicted of the murders of Nancy Montgomery and Thomas Kinnear. While McDermott was executed for these crimes, Grace received a commuted sentence, and ended spending nearly 30 years in incarceration, first in an insane asylum and then later in a penitentiary. To this day, it is unsure if Grace was a willing participant in these gruesome killings, or if she was simply an accessory after the fact. Furthermore, after her release, no one knows what happened to her. This, however, didn’t stop Margaret Atwood from using this highly sketchy biography of Grace as the basis of an intense historical fiction novel.

Yes, I know there’s a miniseries based on this book, but being such a purist, of course I had to read the book first (but I will watch it, I promise), and I’m sure I’ll be glad I did (although it will probably be once again, to my husband’s chagrin, as I point out what is and isn’t in the book). But that aside, this seems very different from the other two books of Atwood’s I’ve read so far, those being The Handmaid’s Tale and The Heart Goes Last. Those two books were both speculative fiction novels, with heavy political undertones that blasted what Atwood felt were injustices in society by taking them to extremes. This novel, however is purely a dramatic, psychological profile.

To be specific, Atwood’s premise here is that Doctor Simon Jordan, working on developing methods to diagnose and treat mental disorders, is given the assignment to work with Grace. Behind this are the efforts of several people who want to find Grace innocent of these crimes – either by reason of insanity or through some kinds of revelations that will prove she was also a victim of McDermott’s deadly schemes. A large bulk of this story is Grace’s telling Dr. Jordan her life story (and I mean all of it), while Grace was imprisoned, but allowed to carry out duties in the home of Governor of the penitentiary. Interspersed with this is Dr. Jordan’s own sub-plot and what happens with him, including some unusual events during his stay at a temporary boarding house. This might sound tedious, but I can assure you it is not. In fact, what Atwood has done here is much deeper than just Grace detailing her life, even if on the surface it seems that way. This is simply because the reader will feel as if they’re getting into Grace’s head, while at the same time Grace continues to be a mystery.

Atwood adds to this snippets from the trial, quotes from newspaper accounts and even some poems written about the event, together with correspondence between various characters. All of this is done in almost stodgy language, reflecting both the era and the personalities of the characters (or the types of behaviors that they are willing to allow others to see). Even descriptions of when Grace is on the verge of hysteria seem somewhat muted, as if Atwood wrote the whole book to feel like an old sepia photograph. That may not mean much to most of my readers, but I’m hoping that it aptly describes the overall atmosphere here.

I must admit that I’m having a hard time explaining why I enjoyed this book so much. If I review what I’ve written here already, it sounds very uninspiring and almost lifeless, and that’s not what I want to convey. Perhaps what I’m trying to say is that this book is a true mystery, and Atwood makes no attempt to solve anything here. In fact, I believe that may have been the whole point of this novel – to set before the reader all the information, and let them decide for themselves who really was Grace Marks. Of course, with the title of the book, Atwood does seem to suggest a need to read what Grace says with a certain level of suspicion. All this just makes me realize that I need to read more Atwood, and I’m going to give this book a full five stars!


“Alias Grace” by Margaret Atwood book is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Kobo (Wallmart) Books and audiobooks, eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

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