Maciek's Reviews > Alias Grace

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
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Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood's ninth novel is a work of historical fiction, although based on a true historical event - the story of Grace Marks, a Canadian housemaid who was convicted of murdering her employer Thomas Kinnear, and suspected of murdering his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery on July 23, 1840. The murder has been extensively reported in Canadian, American and British newspapers. It has sparked quite a controversy: Nancy was Kinnear's mistress who has before given birth to an illegitimate child, and at the autopsy she was found to be pregnant again. Grace has immigrated to Canada from Ireland in 1840 when she was 12; her mother has died on the ship carrying the Marks family and was buried at sea, leaving Grace and her younger siblings in care of her father, an abusive alcoholic. She was sentenced for the murders together with James McDermott, one of her fellow servants, as they were caught together during an attempted escape from Canada into the United States; McDermott has been put to death by hanging while Grace has been first sentenced into a confinement in an insane asylum, but later moved to Kingston penitentiary in Ontario, a maximum security prison. She spent almost three decades there before being pardoned; the last information available is that Grace has moved to live in New York. No one knows what became of Grace Marks after that.

In the afterwood Atwood points out that while both McDermott and Marks have been condemnded to death for the Kinnear murder, opinions on Grace have been divided from the start; thanks to the efforts of her lawyer and a couple of petitioners her fate has been changed to life imprisonment, from which she has eventually been pardoned. Much ambiguity concerned her case, and opinions on her have been polarized:

Attitudes towards her reflected contemporary ambiguity about the nature of women: was Grace a female fiend and temptress, the instigator of the crime and the real murderer of Nancy Montgomery, or was she an unwilling victim, forced to keep silent by McDermott’s threats and by fear for her own life? It was no help that she herself gave three different versions of the Montgomery murder, while James McDermott gave two.

The novel is an attempt to explore the ambiguity concerning that murder and the character of Grace Marks, and a very complex and captivating one at that. The novel is told from two perspectives: as a first hand account by Grace, chronicling her life in the penitentiary and remembrances of her past, from her family's arrival in Canada, the struggles and hardships, employment at the Kinnear house and metting with James McDermott.
The second narration is in the thirs person, from the perspective of Simon Jordan, a young and ambitious American practictioner of the growing field of psychiatry. As Grace claims to have no memory of the actual murders, he is to reconstruct her case. Slowly he tries to bring Grace closer and closer to the actual event, trying to unlock the mental chest holding the recording of that fateful day.

The novel is quite interesting in its structure. Each section begins with an image of a quilt pattern, with additional poetry, citations from newspapers and historical documents, quotations from witnesses, confessions, etc. Grace's monologues are interchanged with Dr. Jordan's correspondence with his friends and family. Even it's generally classified as historical fiction, it has all captivating power of a fine detective thriller, a classic whodunnit, or as in this case shedunnit. Even though the verdict is in and the suspect is in prison, the jury is still much out, and as the pages turn the reader becomes more and more captured by the interplay of Grace's account, which shows her naivete and lack of education, yet reveals an intelligence and cleverness, and Simon's correspondence, research and tries to find the answer to the question which begins to haunt him: who is Grace Marks?

Margaret Atwood is without a doubt one of the finest prose stylist, and her unique skill of weaving multiple layers of the story, combined with a vast research of the period she's writing about and relaying them in a rich and lyrical language true to time, place and character is incredible. She is also a poet, and while I have never read her poetry I think that I am not that far away by saying that she is a poet who choses to work with prose from time to time. Simple, everyday things are relayed in a way that immediately captures attention and demands a second look. Consider the opening paragraph:

Out of the gravel there are peonies growing. They come up through the loose grey pebbles, their buds testing the air like snails’ eyes, then swelling and opening, huge dark-red flowers all shining and glossy like satin. Then they burst and fall to the ground.

Or the opening of chapter 27:

Today when I woke up there was a beautiful pink sunrise, with the mist lying over the fields like a white soft cloud of muslin, and the sun shining through the layers of it all blurred and rosy like a peach gently on fire.

There is a special quality which few writers posess; the ability to construct a scene, using language which is concise yet elegant, beautiful even, and create an image which stays in the mind, like a burning peach. The novel is worth reading because of the sheer excellence of the language, but together with a skilfully unfolded and unpredictable plot and a rich tapestry of themes it becomes a work which is versatile and more than well worth the invested time.

Alias Grace is a beautiful and haunting novel of murder, madness and methodology; it is a fine contribution to the canon of Canadian literature from one of the nation's best known and revered authors. A period piece rich in details of life in the Victorian Canada West, about the importance of class and status, the role of women in the society, the period of history where they were still treated as the feebler sex combined a psychological mystery with all the elements of a great thriller, with excellent characterization and brilliant yet unpretentious language. Even with all its darkness and seriousness of the mystery and situations, Atwood manages to employ humor in the narrative, in a way that is fitting and funny in a good way. It's a spellbinding book that anyone can pick up and become lost in the rich world that it paints, trying to figure out the mystery together with the people that populate it. A great example of combining all the mentioned elements with the the art of exquisite storytelling, Alias Grace is guaranteed to make you think long after the last page has been turned.
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09/03/2011 page 100
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Comments (showing 1-15 of 15) (15 new)

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message 1: by mark (new)

mark monday excellent review. i'm looking forward to this one.


Maciek Thnk you, Mark. I think you'll enjoy this one.


Chippy I loved this book. I need to read more Atwood


Maciek This was a great book indeed. I want to read more of her work, too.


message 5: by Aloha (new) - added it

Aloha Your review makes me want to read this book. I love Atwood's writing, but got distracted with discovering other writers.


Maciek Thank you! She is marvelous and versatile. You'll enjoy this one.


message 7: by Greg (new)

Greg I have yet to read a novel by Atwood, which is probably a bit shocking as I'm half-Canadian, but then I don't read much Irish fiction either even though I'm half-Irish! Maybe I'm only half-interested in such works? ;) Anyway, Atwood has had, for a long time, been regarded as an exceptional author in the international context, let alone a Canadian one, so I feel I should at least sample her work - if for nothing else than to experience her marvellous prose style which you refer to, Maciek. Maybe this is as good as any to start with.

Nevertheless, while this book does sound like an interesting read I tend to shy away from historical fiction because of the liberties that are often taken with historical fact in this genre. That said, the historical novelist can sometimes develop an insight into an historical subject or period precisely because they are willing to stray from the facts and imagine plausible causes and outcomes to events.

But the storyline is curious and it makes me ponder why there are no entries on Marks, her associate McDermott, their victims, or even the psychiatrist in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, and the Irish connection is interesting to me. With a surname like Marks, Grace's family was clearly Anglo-Irish, but what part of the country did she come from? Sources spring to mind which might cast more light on her social origins - notably parish registers and tithe applotment books but also possibly estate papers, registered deeds and vestry minute books (if these all survive for the area her family came from). Did Grace's association with McDermott begin in Ireland, or perhaps on the ship sailing to Canada, and would it throw any light on the murder case if it did? Also, could she have any relatives living in Ireland today?

LOL What historical fiction can be really good at is getting people with an interest in history to delve deeper into the historical subject of the novel. And whatever about it making me 'think long after the last page has been turned', it's already got me thinking without even having opened the book!


message 8: by Aloha (new) - added it

Aloha Wow! Greg, you analyzed it thoroughly before you even read the book. I'll be curious as to your take on the book after you've read it.


message 9: by Greg (new)

Greg Aloha wrote: "Wow! Greg, you analyzed it thoroughly before you even read the book. I'll be curious as to your take on the book after you've read it."

I'm curious too! But I wouldn't say my analysis was all that thorough - I was just pondering where I'd go with that story. There's a surname index to the tithe applotment books, which date mainly to the 1830s (these were used in assessing the tithe that everyone had to pay to the Church of Ireland at that time, regardless of whatever religious persuasion they were), and that index would be my starting point to locate all the Marks households in Ireland in the years before Grace's family left for Canada.

If the family could then be located, it would be interesting to find out what encouraged the Markses to emigrate. Had they been evicted by their landlord, for example, or had Grace's father, um, disgraced himself in the parish as a drunkard and so wanted to make a fresh beginning abroad - only to bring his alcoholism with him...?


message 10: by Aloha (new) - added it

Aloha LOL. Maybe you should write a book based on historical facts, Greg. You really are passionate about the the historical details.


Maciek Greg wrote: "I have yet to read a novel by Atwood, which is probably a bit shocking as I'm half-Canadian, but then I don't read much Irish fiction either even though I'm half-Irish! Maybe I'm only half-interest..."

LOL, Greg, you need to read some Canadian and Irish literature then! Atwood is probably the most widely recognized Canadian writer. Her works are varied in theme, and range from historical fiction such as Alias Grace, through contemporary novels like Surfacing, The Blind Assasin or Cat's Eye to speculative fiction like The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake. This one is as good a starting point as any of them, and I'm sure you'll enjoy it and it'll make want to read more of her works. Other Canadian writers which might be a bit less popular but are nevertheless recognized are figures such as Robertson Davies, short story writer Alice Munro, and Michael Ondaatje.

My favorite Irish novel is called Eureka Street, by Robert McLiam Wilson. It's about and set in Belfast, where the author was born. The author has since disappeared from the public eye, and is to be found nowhere again. Ireland had contributed many influential writers to the canon of literature,such as Jonathan Swift with his famous Gulliver's Travels, James Joyce with his Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake, Bram Stoker of Dracula. Although Oscar Wilde spent the majority of his life in England he's usually claimed as an Irish writer, too. Irish playwrights include George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett...I'm sure you know at least some of these names. ;)

Atwood cites Susanna Moodie's Life in the Clearings as the first occasion where she encountered Grace Marks. The acknowlegments section lists a whole list of works she used to consult and that might be of interest to you if you'd decide to investigate the case on your own. I can only review the book and its contents, as I have not consulted any extra historical sources concerning the factual matter.


Maciek Aloha wrote: "LOL. Maybe you should write a book based on historical facts, Greg. You really are passionate about the the historical details."

Greg's an academician! He has his standards.


Maciek Greg wrote: "If the family could then be located, it would be interesting to find out what encouraged the Markses to emigrate. Had they been evicted by their landlord, for example, or had Grace's father, um, disgraced himself in the parish as a drunkard and so wanted to make a fresh beginning abroad - only to bring his alcoholism with him...?
."


I think the question of move was about money. In the novel Atwood gives the date of move occuring just before the Great Famine of Ireland. Grace even says that she's glad that she has left Ireland before the horrors of the famine. Her father has left for Canada in search of a better life, as millions did before and since him.


Ramesh Kurup Brilliant review - Thanks for the insight


Maciek Thank you, Ramesh! Glad you enjoyed! :)


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