April 7, 2009

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood: Review

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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."

Highly recommended

An interesting note: In Australia, Alias Grace was a one-woman play.

For the Canadian Books Challenge and Dewey's Reading Challenge.

Other reviews:
Dewey @ Hidden Side of the Leaf


  1. I've always thought the view of women back then was just so.... I can't even describe it. It's contradictory to be sure.

  2. Fantastic review! I haven't read this Atwood yet but I'm really looking forward to it. I'd heard that the sometimes monotonous detailing of Grace's daily life were useful in creating an overall feeling/description(?) of what a unmarried woman's life would have been like at that time.

  3. Alias Grace is one of my favorite of Atwoods novels. I loved how she made Grace so elusive not just for Dr. Jordan but the reader as well.

  4. Wonderful review, Chris. I keep meaning to read something by Margaret Atwood (my husband wants me to start with Blind Assassin) and this is one I've been considering. It really is an interesting time period and I'm curious about the story.

  5. I'm glad I read this review right now. I've only ever read Atwood's dystopic novels as well and I keep meaning to read one of the others and I just picked this book up from a charity shop.. I think I have the push I needed to get cracking on it!

  6. Wow, sounds like a pretty thought provoking book. Great review.

  7. It's decided: this is going to be my next Atwood. Fantastic review.

  8. This is one of my favorite Atwoods. Glad you liked it!

  9. Bluestocking- Yes, they can't decide one way or the other. It's weird. No wonder women has all the issues they did.

    Joanne- It definitely does. If it wasn't for the washing machine, I'm sure women wouldn't have gotten as far as we have. I hope you like it.

    Daibhin- I still have made my mind up about her. She's a fascinating character.

    Lit Feline- I liked this one better than Blind Assassin. In fact, I just remembered that I read it.

    Michelle- I hope you go get it.

    Onion- Thanks!

    Nymeth- Great!

    Tara- It might end up being my favorite as well.

  10. I have this book on my TBR but haven't read it yet. Atwood is a hit-or-miss author with me, I am afraid!

  11. This sounds incredibly familiar, but I'm pretty sure the only Atwood I've ever read was The Hndmaid's Tale. I tried The Blind Assassin, but it was a bit dense. Or I was.

  12. you review is soooo good--it really makes me want to read the book. great job!

  13. I've only read one Atwood book, but I certainly want to read more. This sounds quite intriguing. Thanks for the detailed review!

  14. Alias Grace is one of the best books I've read this year so far. I'm glad you really liked it.

    Last year, The Blind Assassin was the best book I read. I agree, both aren't the type of books one reads quickly. But for the sheer beauty of the writing, I loved them.

    Thanks for the review. Didn't know there was a play in Australia.:)

  15. thrilled to see you highly recommend this one. I'm so scared that one day I'll run out of Atwood novels to read that this one is still on the shelf. By the way, I left you a little award here.

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  17. Personally, my favourite Atwood novel is The Blind Assassin but Alias Grace is my second favourite. My sister (who is a huge Atwood fan) thinks that they gave her the Booker for The Blind Assassin because they realized they'd made a mistake for not giving it to her for Alias Grace!

  18. The only Atwood novel that I've been able to complete is The Handmaid's Tale (and it's one of my favorites). But I'm willing to give this one a shot...nice review.

  19. I haven't read an Atwood in quite a while, but this one does interest me. Atwood has a way of plotting a story so masterfully... although her books get long I'm always hanging on to know what's going to happen next.

  20. This sounds really good. Thanks for the review. :) I've never read any Atwood, but this look interesting.

  21. I loved this novel as well and Atwood has definitely become oneof my favourite authors. I liked the way she wrapped things up at the end. She didn't come down difinitively either way, but you definitely felt her opinions of what really happened.

  22. I bought this book at a library sale last year, but haven't read it yet. Glad to hear you enjoyed it. Thanks for the review.

    Diary of an Eccentric


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