Up to this point, I've only read Margaret Atwood's futuristic-we're-all-doomed-dystopian novels. Alias Grace is something completely different. It's historical fiction based on the case of the notorious Canadian murderess, Grace Marks.
In 1843, sixteen year old Grace was convicted of helping James McDermott murder her employer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper/mistress Nancy Montgomery. Grace claimed to have no memory of helping to strangle Nancy, although McDermott swears it is so right up to the moment he is hanged. She has been in prison for 16 years when she meets Dr Jordan a man determined to find the missing memories and prove once and for all Grace's guilt or innocence.
Grace recounts her life, from leaving Ireland and losing her mother, her first job as maid in a fine house in Toronto, to the turbulent months in Kinnear's house before the murders to Dr Jordan. He waits impatiently for the breakthrough that will make his career. In the meantime, his own personal life is falling apart. His mother's frequent letters urge him to marry. He's broke and he's becoming entangled in his landlady's affairs. To his frustration Grace remains as evasive as ever.
Alias Grace is an interesting mix of fact and fiction. Grace was real but Dr Jordan was not. There are other characters who may not have existed but they work for Atwood's story. One name only mentioned briefly in the newspapers of the time takes on a life of it's own and drives the plot. It amazes me what Atwood did with it.
Grace embodies the perceptions of women at that time, both the saint and the whore. One belief is that women are childlike and simple, the other that women are devious and sinful. Dr Jordan can't make up his mind as to what Grace is. Of course, she's just a person and has more in common with Jordan than he realizes. The situation he gets himself into is not unlike the one Grace found herself in. The difference being he is a man and can get himself away. He is a man who wants his cake and eats it too. Although he appears to be a proper gentlemen, he's got some pretty messed up fantasies rolling around in his head.
Sometimes the historical detail is overwhelming. Atwood makes lists. Lists of what was cleaned, what was moved. At times it bogged down the story. Even Margaret Atwood admits that she became obsessed with the details while writing the book. Also the drudgery of Grace's life as a maid depressed me but for Grace this is the happiest part of her life.
Alias Grace isn't just historical fiction but a mystery as well. Was she deliberately lying? Did she really not remember what happened? Even though half the novel is told from Grace's point of view in the form of her interviews with Jordan, she does dangle bits of mystery to the reader. There are things she doesn't tell him. She says what she could tell him but will not. We have to figure out what it means.
It surprised me that Alias Grace ended on the hopeful note it did. Atwood must have had a soft spot for Grace. I like what she says in the author's notes:
"I invite you to meet Alias Grace. May she stop wandering around in my head, and perhaps wander around in yours for a while."
An interesting note: In Australia, Alias Grace was a one-woman play.
For the Canadian Books Challenge and Dewey's Reading Challenge.
Dewey @ Hidden Side of the Leaf