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Alias Grace

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Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor.’

Grace Marks. Female fiend? Femme fatale? Or weak and unwilling victim? Around the true story of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the 1840s, Margaret Atwood has created an extraordinarily potent tale of sexuality, cruelty and mystery.

545 pages, Paperback

First published September 7, 1996

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About the author

Margaret Atwood

583 books78k followers
Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa and grew up in northern Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto and her master's degree from Radcliffe College.

Throughout her writing career, Margaret Atwood has received numerous awards and honourary degrees. She is the author of more than thirty-five volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction and is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman (1970), The Handmaid's Tale (1983), The Robber Bride (1994), Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000. Atwood's dystopic novel, Oryx and Crake, was published in 2003. The Tent (mini-fictions) and Moral Disorder (short stories) both appeared in 2006. Her most recent volume of poetry, The Door, was published in 2007. Her non-fiction book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth ­ in the Massey series, appeared in 2008, and her most recent novel, The Year of the Flood, in the autumn of 2009. Ms. Atwood's work has been published in more than forty languages, including Farsi, Japanese, Turkish, Finnish, Korean, Icelandic and Estonian. In 2004 she co-invented the Long Pen TM.

Margaret Atwood currently lives in Toronto with writer Graeme Gibson.

Associations: Margaret Atwood was President of the Writers' Union of Canada from May 1981 to May 1982, and was President of International P.E.N., Canadian Centre (English Speaking) from 1984-1986. She and Graeme Gibson are the Joint Honourary Presidents of the Rare Bird Society within BirdLife International. Ms. Atwood is also a current Vice-President of PEN International.

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Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books248k followers
December 26, 2018
”All the same, Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word---musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.”

 photo grace-marks-1_zpsjunk3lu3.jpg
Sketches made of Grace Marks and James McDermott during their sensationalized trial.

Grace Marks, at the age of 16 in 1843, was arrested along with James McDermott for the murders of their employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his mistress/housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. The murders were rather sensationalized in Canadian society, what with the cold blooded brutality and the fact that a young, rather beautiful, young woman was involved. McDermott was sentenced to hang, while Marks was saved from the gallows by the spirited defence of her lawyer. She spent the next thirty years of her life incarcerated, first in an asylum and then in a prison.

This story really picked up several years later when Doctor Simon Jordan decided to make a study of her and hoped to unlock some of her missing memories.

See, there were key elements that she didn’t remember about that day that would help him to determine if she was truly a murderess or merely an unwilling accomplice. Jordan was struck by her from the very first moment he met her.

”Her eyes were unusually large, it was true, but they were far from insane. Instead they were frankly assessing him. It was as if she were contemplating the subject of some unexplained experiment; as if it were he, and not she, who was under scrutiny.”

And then there was this observation of Grace by Jordan, as well:

”She’s thinner now, less full in the face; and whereas the picture shows a pretty woman, she is now more than pretty. Or other than pretty. The line of her cheek has a marble, a classic, simplicity; to look at her is to believe that suffering does indeed purify.”

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“Other than pretty” implied further depths to her beyond just the surface beauty that captured the imagination of a ghoulish public. He might not know it, but he was already smitten with Grace and in danger of tumbling head over heels in love with her. It is hard to keep control of a series of interviews if you have become interested in more than just the deeds of the individual. As an added distraction every mother in Toronto with a daughter was trying to manufacture ways to throw their pretty daughters in front of this very eligible bachelor.

He was a doctor after all.

”As one season’s crop of girls proceeds into engagement and marriage, younger ones keep sprouting up, like tulips in May. They are now so young in relation to Simon that he has trouble conversing with them; it’s like talking to a basketful of kittens.”

They were fresh, so new they were barely out of the packaging of their youth, and of course virginal. What every man should desire,...right? Well, if one doesn’t mind vacuousness.

As fascinating as Grace’s story is, I found myself becoming even more engrossed with the story of Dr. Simon Jordan and his desire driven demons. His landlady, whose husband had absconded on a bout of debauchery, was also proving to be a damsel in distress as her only source of income became her one lodger. ”Her face is heart-shaped, her skin milky, her eyes large and compelling; but although her waist is slender, there is something metallic about it, as if she is using a short length of stove-pipe instead of stays. Today she wears her habitual expression of strained anxiety; she smells of violets, and also of camphor.”

She was a beauty past her prime, but still she was compellingly sexy. He felt this attraction against his will. There was no hope for a relationship. She was married and too old to ever be acceptable to his family or his class. He was supposed to marry one of those inane, young ladies. ”It would be one way of deciding his fate, or settling his own hash; or getting himself out of harm’s way. But he won’t do it; he’s not that lazy, or weary; not yet.” I can’t help, but think of Newland Archer from The Age of Innocence, who allowed himself to be trapped into what was expected of him, as well. What if Archer had escaped with Countess Olenska?

I still pine for him to escape.

So even though the landlady was forbidden, bruised fruit, he couldn’t help, but notice that...“Her lips are full, but fragile, like a rose on the verge of collapse.”

This was one of the many times when I had to read a Margaret Atwood line many times, rolled it around the surface of my tongue, so that I could taste the sweet, the bitter, and the savory of that beautifully written line.

Dr. Jordan was starting to have odd thoughts and unsettling dreams of murders committed by himself. He started digging in the garden under the pretense of planting a garden, but it seemed, even to his subconscious self, that he was loosening the soil for...the corpse of his landlord if he should return or maybe a stack of bodies of those from which he wished to escape. It would put him on an equal footing with one particular woman. ”Murderess, murderess, he whispers to himself. It has an allure, a scent almost. Hothouse gardenias. Lurid, but also furtive. He imagines himself breathing it as he draws Grace toward him, pressing his mouth against her. Murderess. He applies it to her throat like a brand.”

This novel is based on the true story of Grace Marks. History lost track of her once she was released from prison after nearly thirty years of incarceration. No tombstone is known to mark her grave. She simply vanished into the woodwork of a new America. Atwood has not only brought her to life, but has seamlessly and creatively put words of putty and glue into the missing pieces. I wonder every time I finish an Atwood why I don’t read her more frequently.

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Sarah Gadon plays Grace Marks in the series

Netflix has recently launched the first season of a new show based on Alias Grace. It spurred me to get this book read that I had planned to read three years ago. I was wooed by other more pressing books, and what a fool I was. I don’t know how I feel about watching the series. I’m as sure that it is good as I am sure that it will disappoint. I will eventually work up the courage to watch it, but I think I will luxuriate in reverence for the book for a while.

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
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Profile Image for Annet.
570 reviews723 followers
September 12, 2019
Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor...

Highlight of 2017 for me!
A pure gem. That is Alias Grace, for me. Another grand work of Margaret Atwood. Atwood, described as ‘one of the most brilliant and unpredictable novelists alive’ (Literary Review)……and also: ‘A witty, elegant, generous and patient writer.’ I would say a strong-minded, self-willed, wayward writer, sometimes also dark and ruthless. This story keeps you hooked from beginning to end, following Grace Marks in her troubled life. A colourful, multifaceted and intriguing story, that keeps you reading for more than 500 pages….
This is how Atwood describes the story outline in her Author’s Afterword, which I recommend everyone to read in full:
About Grace is a work of fiction, although it is based on reality. Its central figure, Grace Marks, was one of the most notorious Canadian women of the 1840s, having been convicted of murder at the age of sixteen. The Kinnear-Montgomery murders took place on July 23, 1843, and were extensively reported not only in Canadian newspapers but in those of the United States and Britain. The details were sensational: Grace Marks was uncommonly pretty and also extremely young. Nancy Montgomery had previously given birth to an illegitimate child and was Thomas Kinnear’s mistress; at her autopsy she was found to be pregnant. Grace and her fellow servant James McDermott had run away to the US together and were assumed by the press to be lovers…..The trial was held in early November. Only the Kinnear murder was tried. …. McDermott was hanged in front of a huge crowd on November 21, but opinion about Grace was divided from the start and due to the efforts of her lawyer and a group of respectable gentlemen petitioners –who pleaded her youth, the weakness of her sex and her supposed witlessness her sentence was commuted to life…. She continued to be written about over the course of the century, and she continued to polarize opinion. 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 Montgomory, or was she an unwilling victim, forced to keep silent by McDermott’s threats and by fear of her own life? ….

So this story takes you in more than 500 pages in a quiet pace through the life of Grace… and a variety of characters surround her in the progress of the story. Including the fascinating Dr. Jordan, who comes into play to assess Grace and in that process we witness his struggle and moral decline….As Atwood says in her afterword: she stayed with the historical facts, but there were gaps there or unclarities/various versions and in that case she took the liberty to fill those gaps in.

What can I say. I think Atwood is a true artist – solid writing – sharp observations – great writing. What more can I want? 5 stars and highly recommended. I'm a fan (was already, now it's official :-))
Profile Image for Kalliope.
691 reviews22 followers
December 17, 2015

Working with patches. Patchwork. Putting together various pieces of material that already existed and joining them into a new design.

This is the theme that Margaret Atwood has developed through her novel, and I am not making this up for the sake of my review. Her concluding paragraphs, spoken by her heroine, are about the patched Tree of Paradise.

The Tree itself is of triangles, in two colours, dark for the leaves and a lighter colour for the fruits; I am using purple for the leaves and red for the fruits.

And so Atwood constructed her fiction. She has taken fragments from a past reality, from a crime committed in the Canada of the 1840s. The unifying thread is the fictionalized account of Grace Marks, one of the two people convicted for a double murder. The other person accused was hanged, but her sentence was commuted to life in prison. Through her novel Atwood has called her to live again--in fiction. Thanks to her stitches.

Using this textual thread, one spun out of the materials of memory and invention, Atwood has joined many other pieces. Some add colour and veracity, for she includes fragments from newspapers – for as this became a famous case, a plethora of texts narrated this event before Atwood did – as well as extracts from the written confessions by Marks herself, or from letters written by real life figures such as the Medical Superintendent of the Asylum where Marks was interned, or from the Diary of the Warden of the Penitentiary where Marks spent the early part of her sentence.

Other fragments included add a different tonality and ingenuity. Stanzas from poems, sonnets, stanzas and tragedies interspersed here and there add insight and sensitivity. This crafty use of lyrical and dramatic elements appeal to our fancies and sharpen our awareness, and the overall effect is new and compelling.

And as we notice Atwood’s abilities in working with patches, we recognized her literary artistry and her understanding of the powers of fiction. When stories are woven they are nothing at all, but when they are finished, with all their parts sewn together, they become what they are. Not surprisingly is Scheherezade invoked in the novel. For stories, mixing truths and falsities acquire the nature of something else. They are not too different from the Tree of Paradise, the tree of Life and of Good&Evil.

Profile Image for Tatiana.
1,401 reviews11.7k followers
June 6, 2011
I felt about Alias Grace the same way I did about probably half of Atwood's novels I've read so far - I just didn't fully get it.

Nobody conveys Life ain't easy for a woman message as well as Atwood. Past, present, future - the living is rough for women. It is particularly unpleasant for Grace Marks, a young servant girl in mid-19th century Canada, accused of murdering her employer and his housekeeper with the help of her co-worker and alleged paramour, and who is locked up first in an insane asylum and then prison. Atwood finds a way to explore plenty of issues from a feminist standpoint here - poverty, servitude, sexual repression, violence, insanity - and does is marvelously.

What didn't work for me was Grace's story itself. Evidently, this real-life criminal case got a lot of attention back in a day. Was Grace a cunning murderess? Or did her supposed lover force her to participate in this gruesome crime? Did she make up her convenient memory loss?

People speculated about this 150 years ago without coming to any definitive conclusion. Atwood doesn't give any answers in her fictionalized version either. After establishing Grace's character so well, the author failed in my eyes to come up with a convincing solution to the mystery, or a believable motivation for either scenario. If Grace was in fact the evil murderess, why did she desire to kill her master? And if her co-conspirator was in charge, what was his reason? I never understood this.

I appreciate ambiguity on fiction, but what is the point of reconstructing a crime, examining it if you do not give any opinion as to what actually took place? Frustrating.
Profile Image for Fabian.
947 reviews1,563 followers
April 23, 2020
I keep kicking myself for having ditched the Atwood Speaking Gala at A.W.P. in Chicago this year (2012). The fierce literati kept the attendance so high that it was virtually as if Lady Gaga herself were to give a lecture on her impressive body of work. I was more interested in walking all around Chitown, anyway, but I really (sorta) regret not having nabbed a coveted seat. She was probably amazing: uberclever & brilliant.

Without two minor (teeny) infractions, “Alias Grace” is pretty much a well-rounded, totalizing, COMPLETE novel—one which paints a full world with such realistic colors that the reader quickly forgets that the plot actually comes from the 1850’s Annals of Canadian Crime. Before I start extolling it madly, let me quickly state what those two “minor infractions” are: Grace’s 1st-person accounts are not completely authentic-sounding; they are far too articulate and intelligent—symbols become too clearly presented to the reader (who should feel slightly MORE confused, as psyches are often deep chasms) as the author’s own signature is made overly-clear in Grace’s own declarations (Atwood adds on her character’s openly-questionable credibility pretty early on, to her credit). Also, there is this feeling that without that added spice of changing POV’s and tenses, the plot would have been banal & tedious—the middle indeed sags, but the conclusion, the last 80 pages of it, is ultimately positively stellar. Luckily for us, the writer was hyperaware of how much of her own added element would befit this seemingly-simple story of homicide. Those symbols of femininity (the red peonies, the patchwork quilt, the washing & scrap-booking) have never been placed in such intense context before—I was genuinely enthralled, impressed like a rabid Atwood fanboy. I truly like this one, perhaps not as much as her fantastic “Oryx and Crake,” but far more than her most famous “Handmaid’s Tale” & her more recent “Year of the Flood.”
Profile Image for jessica.
2,535 reviews32.6k followers
February 7, 2019
‘if we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged.’

the year is 1843 and grace marks has been arrested and convicted for her alleged involvement in two murders. she is only 16 years old and will spend the next 29 years incarcerated.

but what would possess a young girl to commit such a crime? and why did she give three conflicting confessions of what happened? was it a crime of passion or unfortunate circumstances?

the answers to these questions is exactly what dr. jordan hopes to discover. as the doctor prompts graces memories, the reader is immersed in a story surrounded by sex, violence, and insubordination, with the uncomfortable realisation that not everything is so black and white.

atwood is a very thorough storyteller. its evident by reading this that atwood has exhausted all sources when researching grace marks and that tragic day in history. and whilst the subject matter is hauntingly gripping, my only complaint it this is a little dry. its a long exposé of graces character and is very slow at times (especially when recounting her early life), almost to the point where i become emotionally deattached from everything that was happening.

but i cant deny that this dramatic tale is thought-provoking, as much as it is entertaining. its a definite must read for those who enjoy the true crime of historical fiction.

3.5 stars
Profile Image for Bionic Jean.
1,228 reviews1,062 followers
April 5, 2023
"When you are in the middle of a story it isn't a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else."

This powerful passage is from Margaret Atwood's 1996 novel Alias Grace. She developed the novel from her television script "The Servant Girl" of 1974, and it was shortlisted for the Booker prize. The story is about the notorious 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in Canada. Grace Marks and James McDermott, both servants in the household, were convicted of the crime. McDermott was hanged and Marks was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Alias Grace is based on factual events. However the author explains that she has used verifiable facts wherever possible, but that where there were none she felt at liberty to embroider or invent. One of her creations is the character of a doctor, Simon Jordan, who researches the case. Although he is conducting research into criminal behaviour, he slowly becomes more and more personally involved in the story which is gradually unveiled to him by Grace Marks. He finds it increasingly difficult to reconcile the gentle, self-controlled woman he sees every day with the murderess who has been convicted.

The novel follows the story of Grace's life, as she relates it to Doctor Jordan. These parts with Grace as the viewpoint character are cleverly written with no punctuation. Therefore, because they are written from Grace's point of view, the reader is never sure whether Grace is speaking or thinking. Atwood's use of language is poignant and evocative in these descriptions of events. Colours, smells, feelings - all are described in minute detail, which would be extraordinary feats of expression if spoken aloud by Grace herself. An example of this is the quotation above. It is attributed to Grace, but was this spoken aloud? Were these her own innermost thoughts? Or is it being addressed to the reader?

Other parts are written from Doctor Jordan's point of view, although Atwood uses the third person in these passages, whereas for Grace, it is always "I". This switching between points of view makes the reader uncertain, and the narrative quite edgy. In addition, authentic newspaper articles and letters from doctors and those in charge of Grace during her time in prisons and asylums are interspersed at the end of some of the chapters. They are not chronological, which again adds to the disjointed feel of the text. Most of the detail is of events prior to the murders, and some date from a long time earlier, but we do find out what happens to both Grace and Doctor Jordan after the long consultations.

Although in the afterword Atwood states that the facts are inconclusive, throughout the reader is trying to ascertain what really happened. We feel there is a mystery. At this distance we will never know, and in any event this is a novel. But it is very well-constructed and parts are beautifully written.
Profile Image for Lisa.
977 reviews3,327 followers
November 13, 2018
"If we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged."

When I first read Alias Grace, I thought it was "less" relevant than her other, almost prophetically painful novels. I changed my mind. Not immediately, and not deliberately. But slowly, steadily, like a patchwork taking form, I could see the novel in a new light long after I finished it. It grew in my memory as it faded, and all of a sudden, it occurred to me that it was a masterpiece of quiet rebellion where the other novels, like the Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake, the Penelopiad or Cat's Eye are angry, eloquently shouted manifestos.

What is sanity? That painful interregnun between phases of blissful insanity, as Poe wittily claims, or the opinion of the (insane) majority? What is murder? What is guilt? How can one determine what really happened if all people involved in the action live in different minds, meaning different realities? How do we establish "truth" in the tangle of myths, passions, prejudices and conventions?

As always, we solve the mystery of a story by telling another, and Margaret Atwwod seemed to define my journey as a reader long before I knew what I was reading myself:

"When you are in the middle of a story it isn't a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else."
Profile Image for Jamie.
321 reviews239 followers
February 7, 2009
Margaret Atwood occupies a strange nook in my heart. She's become a bit of a chore lately, as I'm including her in my senior honors thesis; on the other hand, I've now read almost all of her novels, and while none are bad or even...not really good. Just that because a few of the novels shine so brightly, that the others seem duller in comparison.

Well, Alias Grace is a supernova. It's an absolutely phenomenal novel, and a truly thrilling read. It's a departure for Atwood, as it's historical fiction (of course, she did do the Journals of Susanna Moodie before), but moreover, it employs similar narrative techniques as detective fiction, while turning them on their head--in any case, it's definitely a page-turner, which is not something you usually mention in conjunction with Atwood. This doesn't discount the literary merit--there's enough meat in the book to write a dissertation or five on it. There's something quite fresh in her style here, with many many passages I absolutely had to read aloud to whomever was (un)fortunate enough to be near me as I read.

The general structure of the novel is from the outset quite fascinating--each section is tied under the flag of a quilt pattern, and each begins with a series of epigraphs, combining historical documents, poetry, "witness accounts" and so forth--ultimately questioning the validity of each, and how we reconfigure the past with necessarily limited frameworks at hand. Writing a fictionalized account of a historical person is itself an indictment of history, but Atwood takes it so much farther, and in much more wonderfully 'political' ways. Grace is still a frustrating enigma by the end of the text, but you'll adore her and her sly moves, her secret longings, and her storytelling ability--Dr. Jordan, as we discover, has no idea what he's getting into with her. It's certainly a dark read, and often I would have to lay the book down for at least a minute or two to catch my breath. But Atwood has a wonderful way of infusing humor into even the bleakest of moments, so there were just as many times when I found myself laughing aloud. This book will not leave you for a long time.
Profile Image for Candi.
614 reviews4,641 followers
September 2, 2015
This book is a gem. A work of fiction, but based on actual historical events, Alias Grace is the story of the convicted murderess, Grace Marks. Sixteen year old Grace and fellow servant James McDermott are said to have brutally murdered their employer, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper and supposed mistress, Nancy Montgomery, in Canada during the 1840’s. However, Grace claimed to have no memory of her own culpability in these murders. Both were found guilty; James McDermott was condemned to death and Grace Marks was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Provincial Penitentiary in Kingston, Canada.

In the novel, Grace’s story is revealed to Dr. Simon Jordan, a fictional, progressive, young doctor who is trained in the study of mental illnesses. Dr. Jordan’s expertise has been requested by a group of individuals who are petitioning for a pardon for Grace. Grace’s story, as she relates it in the first person to Dr. Jordan, is so very compelling, I could not put this book down. I was immediately drawn to Grace as she so expressively recounted her memories of her childhood, her migration to Canada from Ireland, her new life as a servant, her trial and her life in prison. Just like Dr. Jordan, I at first wondered about her guilt, her sanity, and whether or not she was speaking with candor or artifice.

The prose here is so wonderfully moving. At the end of one of her sessions with Dr. Jordan, Grace says, either to the reader or to herself:
“While he writes, I feel as if he is drawing me; or not drawing me, drawing on me – drawing on my skin – not with the pencil he is using, but with an old-fashioned goose pen, and not with the quill end but with the feather end. As if hundreds of butterflies have settled all over my face, and are softly opening and closing their wings.”

“But underneath that is another feeling, a feeling of being wide-eyed awake and watchful. It’s like being wakened suddenly in the middle of the night, by a hand over your face, and you sit up with your heart going fast, and no one is there. And underneath that is another feeling still, a feeling like being torn open; not like a body of flesh, it is not painful as such, but like a peach; and not even torn open, but too ripe and splitting open of its own accord. And inside the peach there’s a stone.”

Grace also has a way of discerning others that is at times both shrewd and witty. I felt as if she could easily have switched roles with Dr. Jordan – she being the analyst and he being the subject of her scrutiny rather than vice versa. And, Dr. Jordan, I felt was verily in need of some rehabilitation of his own psyche!

In addition, I found even her general observations of her surroundings to be rather droll. I found myself laughing out loud on occasion. In her description of a bustle, she says “it was like having another bum tied on top of your real one and the two of them following you around like a tin bucket tied to a pig.” Grace’s narrations of her dreams, too, were so vivid; I could feel the stirring emotions these evoked. “I was seeing it all for the first time, although I also knew I had been there before, as is the way in dreams… And I longed to be there, although in the dream I was there already; but I had a great yearning towards this house, for it was my real home.”

I grew to admire Grace throughout this book. But, was she innocent or guilty of the heinous crime for which she was convicted? Are we, the readers, able to come to a conclusion based on Ms. Atwood’s spin on this factual event? Or, is that not the real purpose here – to come to a veritable conclusion? No matter what you conclude, the consummate storytelling in this Atwood novel is well worth your time.
Profile Image for Baba.
3,562 reviews859 followers
April 16, 2022
Margaret Atwood had a long time fascination with 19th century Canada's most sensational murders and trial, where the Irish-Canadian 15 year old housemaid, Grace Marks was co-accused and divided many - those that thought she was a cold killer and those that thought she was a tad naive and just another victim of the 20-year old James McDermott. In Alias Grace, Atwood takes us for a whirl with a number of 'well-meaning' narrators pro and anti - Grace; and one honourable and honest, but stoic narrator or a very cunning unreliable narrator ...Grace Marks, devil, angel or something in between?

With such a salacious topic to write about, it's almost a marvel that the book still completely centres around Grace and what we learn from what she thinks and tells us. I sat down almost presuming innocence from the off, her being a highly underprivileged girl with no real power, yet despite this, the more I read, the more torn I was. That's what I really liked about the way the story is presented to the reader, the more you know, the less you know. Yes Grace was and is treated horrendously from her childhood through to her trial and then imprisonment; but did that make her a murderer or did it make her vulnerable to being caught up in a murder?

This is technically an epistolary novel, although some of the entries are so long it doesn't feel like it is. Atwood conjures up a not often seen Canada a few years before the American Civil War, and through a number of characters sets the out the status quo of the time. The historical backdrop is fascinating, as was the way they diagnosed and treated mental health; but of everything, it made me think, when I realised that sexism may have been the key to Grace's escape from the death penalty! Yet another Atwood good read, in this case, one that I feel went on too long - 8 out of 12

2020 read
Profile Image for Lotte.
548 reviews1,109 followers
October 27, 2018
So, so good!
Alias Grace questions the existence of an absolute truth. Moreover, how is what we think of as the truth informed by power structures (specifically, gender and class disparages)? Can someone who is deemed mad tell the truth? Who do you believe when push comes to shove?
Even though this book was written in the 90s and is set in the middle of the 19th century, it remains an incredibly relevant read. I couldn’t help but read this story as commentary on current developments, such as the #MeToo movement – and what poignant commentary at that! Margaret Atwood manages to point out injustice and sexism, both overt and subtle, and I marked a lot of passages while reading. She also gives insight into the historical treatment of mental disorders and the development of what we know think of as psychiatry, which I found very fascinating.
Apart from the interesting and important topics it discusses, Alias Grace also tells such a well crafted story and it managed to keep me completely engrossed while reading. It remains an ambiguous read until the end and it’s very much the kind of book that only gives you answers if you want them, while also offering some kind of resolution and closure, and I really appreciated that.
I'd highly recommend Alias Grace and it's definitely the kind of book that will stick with me for a while!
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,196 reviews9,475 followers
July 7, 2009
At the very heart of certain narratives is a lacuna, to which the reader is drawn ineluctibly, as the centre of a whirlpool of meanings. It may indicate something essentially unknowable, ineffable - the lacuna in the Old Testament is when God tells Moses I AM THAT I AM, which lets us know in no uncertain terms that this thing is not of logic or language, whatever it may be; the lacuna of the New Testament is Christ's three days in the tomb - we are not told anything about that, it is unknowable. Or this gap in the story may indicate simply something someone does not wish to tell us - the very heart of the matter, the thing of shame, the motive. Here the gap is a void or avoidance. Psychologically powerful avoidance fuelled by intense guilt makes a hair-raising narrative, as the reader, writer and protagonist gradually converge together and find themselves in the belly of the beast - two memorable examples from non-fiction are Fritz Stangl's horrible wrestling with his past as commandant of Treblinka in Gitta Sereney's series of interviews with him ("Into that Darkness") and Michaud & Aynesbury's interviews with Ted Bundy ("Conversations with a Killer"). In both cases we are caught up in the subtle and confrontational stratagems the interviewers use to get the monster to acknowledge an identification with the previous self who committed the atrocities. Stangl ferociously hangs on to the "it was just a job, a really really difficult job" line until he cracks - and how dramatic to read that a day or so after he finally - finally - admits that he was personally responsible for what he had done, he dies of a heart attack. Bundy constructs a way of describing his crimes by "speculating" about them in the third person, contemplating how the person who perpetrated them "might have been" feeling, of how he "was reacting inappropriately to stress in his life". He edges to the very rim of acceptance of guilt but can't manage the swan-dive into what we non-serial killers assume to be the cleansing waters of catharsis which await those who accept their crimes and seek atonement.
Alias Grace's story likewise is a stately sarabande of 550 pages around the central question - did she do it? Suspended from that mystery, the ponderous but pillowy narrative describes the life of Grace Marks in her own languid hyper-observational manner (a great fictional voice) and counterposes this with the fervid cavortings of the brain doctor sent to ferret out her great secret. He's quite a scream.
So anyway, this book is squarely in that genre I call Modern Victorian, in which the contemporary novelist writes us another great big Victorian story but being modern can put in all the filth and flesh, all the naming of parts which the real Victorian novelists couldn't do. It turns out, from what I've read so far, to be a great idea. Consider these -

1) The Crimson Petal and the White (Michel Faber) - completely brilliant and nearly 1000 pages too

2) The Quincunx (Charles Palliser) - completely brilliant and just over 1000 pages

3) Fingersmith (Sarah Waters) - yes, just about completely brilliant too

4) The French Lieutenant's Woman (John Fowles) - acknowledged by all to be fairly brilliant

Very glad to add Alias Grace to this select list and will be happy to grab up other Modern Victorians as they swim my way.

Alias Grace likes, in its modern way, to leave a lot of stuff unanswered and without chucking in a huge horrid spoiler here, I can't reveal why I think that part of the Central Revelatory Scene was pure codswallop, but that didn't make no never mind. Margaret Atwood's big book sails onward, sad, sumptuous, and very slightly sexy too.
Profile Image for Luís.
1,864 reviews520 followers
February 3, 2023
Margaret Atwood relied heavily on an authentic and famous fact to imagine what could have happened to Grace Marks, a beautiful fifteen-year-old girl accused of a double murder and sentenced to death before being finally sentenced to perpetuity. For this, it features the fictitious doctor Simon Jordan who came to study the twists and turns of the brain and, more specifically, of memory to retrace the entire journey of this young woman locked up for already fifteen years: her birth in Northern Ireland, the alcoholic and violent father, their migration to Canada, arrival in Toronto, and finally her work as a servant with Mr. Kinnear and his housekeeper and mistress Nancy Montgomery, whom she was accused of complicity in murder with her so-called lover James McDermott.
The story's genuine interest lies in the ambiguity of Grace's words when she agrees to confide in Doctor Jordan. She appears at the same time young, naive, weak, gentle and intelligent, vaguely manipulative, secretive, jealous, and vengeful. Is she sane and simulative? Did she forget what happened on the day of the murder? Or is she demented, simple-minded?
Many points will remain unexplained at the novel's end despite the latest adventures, particularly his guilt.
Margaret Atwood made all the characters complex and made us go around in circles; it's never really as we imagine. In short, it's an excellent psychological novel that I enjoyed reading and opened many doors.
Profile Image for Magrat Ajostiernos.
569 reviews3,943 followers
May 25, 2017
¡Primera lectura de Atwood y primer acierto! :)
Alias Grace es una historia sórdida y cruel, muy bien documentada y que resulta apasionante aún en el relato de los sucesos más sencillos... hay dos cosas que me han sorprendido especialmente, el toque sobrenatural y la ambigüedad del relato y los personajes.
Obviamente, seguiré con Margaret Atwood :)
Profile Image for mwana .
371 reviews207 followers
April 13, 2022
Murderess is merely brutal. It's like a hammer, or a lump of metal. I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices.
This is the story of Grace Marks. A most unfortunate woman-- depending on how you look at it.

The story starts with Grace in prison, serving life after being granted clemency in the trial after the murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. Out of the gravel there are peonies growing, the story begins. A dream that Grace had which she is relating to Dr Simon Jordan. A perpetually horny and well-meaning doctor on a tour to study crimes of mania and insanity.

Grace Marks was working as a maid at sixteen years of age when her employer, Thomas Kinnear and his mistress/housekeeper are brutally murdered by James McDermott and her, allegedly. Some accounts believe that James is her paramour and he conducted the killings on Grace's coercion. However, other people believe that Grace was just a hapless captive. A stupid witless pawn who got embroiled in a conspiracy that had her in way over her head.

This book is startling. I often had to remind myself that Atwood published this in 1996. It reeks of Victorian era Canada, accurate in its gothic nature and sensibilities. Oft times it got caught in its own dogma. The puritanism, sexism, ignorance, marginal progressivism and proto-feminism of the era.
In his student days, he used to argue that if a woman has no other course open to her but starvation, prostitution, or throwing herself from a bridge, then surely the prostitute, who has shown the most tenacious instinct for self-preservation, should be considered stronger and saner than her frailer and no longer living sisters. One couldn't have it both ways, he'd point out: if women are seduced and abandoned, they're supposed to go mad,(I now realise this was remarkable foreshadowing) but if they survive, and seduce in their turn, then they were mad to begin with.
The language in this is also enticing. When we get to explore Grace, I sit with my rough hands folded, eyes down, staring at the flowers in the Turkey carpet. Or they are supposed to be flowers. They have petals in the shape of diamonds on a playing card; like the cards spread out on the table at My Kinnear's, after the gentlemen had been playing the night before. Hard and angular. But red, a deep thick red. Thick strangled tongues.

It's so easy to find yourself mired in the world of Grace who suffers from chronic main character syndrome. She often reacts to things that affect others way more than her but it's all about her feelings. Her reactions. Her world rocked.

She recounts the story about how her family immigrated from Ireland to Canada, only for tragedy to strike during passage and once more it was all about how it affected her. Grace is also obsessed with the imagery of flowers and water. I was often befuddled as to whether her obsession with peonies had any narrative value. Eventually I wondered if it was just Atwood high on her own prose just having a ball.

This book is surprising in its relatability. For all of her naivete, Grace has an alacritous ability to peer into the human condition. When she remembers that she may never have children due to her prison sentence, When you are sad it is best to change the subject.

When she reminisces the tragic life of her old friend Mary Whitney...saying what you really want out loud brings bad luck, and then the good thing will never happen.

She was even a bit of an amateur nihilist, A sea voyage and a prison may be God's reminder to us that we are all flesh, and that all flesh is grass, and all flesh is weak.

This book is also ridiculously funny. ...as with crows, when you see two or three of them gathered together you know there is a death in the offing, and they are discussing it. With the crows they are deciding which parts they will tear open and make off with, and so it is with the doctors. Especially, according to Grace, if they have a leather bag or knives.

Before going to bed, she greased the skin of her face like a boot.

Perhaps the strongest arsenal in this punch of a book is its characterisation. Grace's anecdotes of the people she encounters give such powerful portraits of them. Grace's pragmatic observations of the people around her (while possibly mendacious) showed dynamics that created room for treachery, jealousies and negative passions. One that particularly stood out to me was a moment between Grace and Nancy.
Oh Grace, said Nancy, we will have to kill a chicken, just step out and request McDermott to do it. I said that surely we would need two chickens, as there would be six to dine, with the ladies; but she was annoyed, and said there would be no ladies, as the wives of these gentlemen never condescended to darken the door of the house, and she herself would not be taking dinner with them in the dining room, as all they would do was drink and smoke and tell stories about what fine deeds they'd done in the Rebellion, and the would stay too long and play cards after, and it was bad for Mr Kinnear's health, and he would catch a cough, as was always the case when these men came to visit. She allowed him a poor constitution when it suited her.
Grace's sometimes uncharitable opinions of Nancy make you wonder, could she have possibly been more complicit than she would have us believe?

She was fond of fainting spells and espousing her aforementioned weak constitution, even so much as crying when the chicken was slaughtered.

My favourite part of the book, apart from the prose, was the subtle commentary of society. Atwood jabs at norms relevant to modern day human behaviour. From pathologising women, to the patriarchal expectation of women to perform and exist for the whims of men, to tabloid culture the newspaper journalists like to believe the worst; they can sell more papers that way, as one of them told me himself; for even upstanding and respectable people dearly love to read ill of others.

This book had everything and then some. I'm so glad I got to buddy read it with Raul. And while I may be able to write a thesis on the feminist relevance of villainised women, I shall just leave you with this quote by Grace which left me shook,
...you may think a bed is a peaceful thing, Sir, and to you it may mean rest and comfort and a good night's sleep. But it isn't so for everyone; and there are many dangerous things that may take place in a bed. It is where we are born, and that is our first peril in life; and it is where the women give birth... And finally beds are what we sleep in, and where we dream, and often where we die.
Profile Image for Madeline.
775 reviews47k followers
September 15, 2008
I'm giving this three stars, but the correct rating would be 2 1/2 stars - I liked this book, for the most part, but there were just too many unanswered questions and minor annoyances for me to want to read it again.
Usually, I hate giving away the endings of books in my reviews, but I honestly cannot talk about Alias Grace without giving away major plot points. You've been warned.

So: for the most part, this was a cool story, mostly because it's based on the true story of Grace Marks, who supposedly helped murder her employer and his housekeeper. She served thirty years in prison, plus several years in a mental institution. Atwood's story has two perspectives: Grace Marks and Simon Jordan, a doctor who's interviewing her and basically trying to get her to remember the day of the murders. This was all pretty cool, and I liked Grace a lot as a protagonist. So let's move on to the negative.
Stuff I Didn't Like:
-Simon creeped me out. One minute he's half-heartedly flirting with the daughter of the prison Govenor while mentally undressing her, and then he's screwing his landlady for reasons that even he doesn't understand. And then towards the end of the book he's suddenly like, "Oh wait! I'm in love with Grace! Yes! Totally in love" and it made NO SENSE. This was the first time I'd read a book where Atwood writes from a man's perspective, and it did not go well.
-I guessed the ending. This is an extremely bad sign, because I can NEVER guess book endings, ever. But with this book, I'd gotten to the part where Grace describes how McDermott told her she'd promised to sleep with him, and she was like, "I did not" and I thought, "She's being possessed by the spirit of Mary Whitney." And then I thought that it had to be more complicated than that, and that there would be a scientific explanation for it. But there wasn't. Which brings me to my next point...
-Atwood's half-hearted commitment to the paranormal aspect of the story. The hypnosis scene revealed that Mary was possessing Grace, but then everyone was like, "But that's not possible, there's a psychological explanation" but they never gave one. All the elements of a good ghost story are here: the peddlar who reads palms, divination with an apple peel, people making strange, random prophesies (like Grace's mother saying she wouldn't survive the voyage, and Mary telling Grace she'd cross water three times before getting married), and the bizarre possession. But Atwood, probably because she didn't want to lose her credibility or something, refrains from going all-out with the paranormal events. If she'd have relaxed a bit and written the book as a ghost story instead of historic fiction, it would have been really good.
-The whole hypnosis. I was sure it was all an act, because Jeremiah had been telling Grace earlier about setting up a fake spiritualist act, but then Grace didn't seem to remember anything about the hypnosis or what she said during it. So could Jeremiah actually hypnotize people? After the hypnosis scene, and as soon as I realized I was expected to believe that it had been authentic, was when my faith in the story really started to drop. It was all downhill from there.
-No twist ending. I was waiting, up until the last page, for Grace to be like, "I'm so glad I killed those two bastards. Mwahahahaha! The end." But no such luck. In retrospect, I should have known better - Atwood hates giving readers a straight answer to anything, and conclusive endings where everything gets wrapped up in a neat little package is for lesser authors, I guess.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Johann (jobis89).
643 reviews4,266 followers
August 23, 2019
”If we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged.”

A fictionalised retelling of the story of Grace Marks and the part that she may or may not have played in the murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. Grace was only 16 when she accused of murdering her employer and his housekeeper.

This is a fantastic mix of true crime and historical fiction! Atwood blends the two wonderfully, even including actual excerpts from reports and books, as well as pictures of the two charged with the murders. Atwood’s research and attention to detail is very apparent, although I held off on reading about the true crime case that inspired the novel until after I had finished.

The story kicks off with Grace in Kingston Penitentiary, serving her sentence for these murders. That is until Doctor Simon Jordan becomes involved in her case and tries to unlock some of the memories that she claims are hidden away. What unravels is a slow-paced yet addictive read, brimming with sex, violence and commentaries on both class and gender. And I could not get enough!

My overwhelming reaction to this book was to simply be in awe of Atwood’s writing and wit. She provides such sharp astute observations that are equally intelligent and droll - I definitely sniggered on more than a few occasions.

To summarise, Atwood is a goddamn queen. Alias Grace surpasses The Handmaid’s Tale as my favourite Atwood to date and is up there in my top 10 books of the year so far! I loved every single page! 5 stars.
Profile Image for Tahani Shihab.
592 reviews829 followers
January 16, 2021

“عندما كان آدم يعزق الأرض
وحواء تغزل
فمن حينئذ كان علية القوم؟”

أدينت الخادمة جريس ماركس، بقتل مخدومها توماس كينير ومدبرة منزله نانسي مونتجومري. حُكم عليها أن تعيش بقية حياتها خلف القضبان، ولكنها ادعت أنها لا تحتفظ بذكرى الحدث الفعلي فتُتهم بالجنون ويتم إيداعها مصحة للأمراض العقلية. بعد مرور سنوات، يدخل طبيب الأمراض العصبية والعقلية حياتها وهو مصمم على اكتشاف ما إذا كانت جريس عاقلة أم مجنونة. أو كانت كذلك في وقت ارتكاب الجريمتين. وإذا كانت هناك أي طريقة تمكنه من مساعدتها لاستعادة ذكرياتها المفقودة. وبناءً على تقريره سيتبين إن كانت بريئة أم مذنبة لإطلاق سراحها.

كانت تُرسل جريس يوميًا من الإصلاحية إلى منزل المحافظ كعاملة، وفي غرفة الخياطة تبدأ جلساتها مع الطبيب جوردان … الطبيب يسأل، وجريس تخيط وتطرز وتحكي حكايتها للطبيب العازب كخيطِ مغزل لا ينتهي … تذكر أدق التفاصيل منذ أن كانت طفلة في بلفاست، إلى أن رحلت مع والديها وإخوتها بالباخرة إلى كندا واستقرارهم في تورنتو، إلى أن حطّت أقدامها في منطقة ريتشموند هيل عند مخدومها التي أُتهمت بقتلهِ. والقارئ المتلهف لا يفتأ يسأل نفسه في حيرة: هل فعلًا جريس فقدت الذاكرة؟ هل يمكن للقارئ الوثوق بما تقوله للطبيب؟ هل جريس ماركس قاتلة، مخادعة؟

أول رواية أقرأها للكاتبة الكندية مارجريت أتوود صاحبة القلم الرشيق. من خلال الرواية تقوم آتوود بعمل مثير للإعجاب ببناء قصة رائعة تشدّ القارئ وتستنفر كلّ حواسه، بأسلوب سهل وممتع، حيث جمعت الكاتبة بين الحقائق التاريخية الموثقة وبعض من خيالها الإبداعي.
Profile Image for Andy Marr.
Author 2 books717 followers
October 4, 2022
A wee bit overlong in parts, but overall a great piece of historical fiction.
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,256 reviews49 followers
April 3, 2017
This is an extraordinary reconstruction of the life of Grace Marks, a domestic servant who was convicted of the double murder of her employers in Canada in the 1840s. In framing the story around her interviews with a young doctor interested in making his name by proving her innocence, Atwood is able to avoid committing herself on the degree of Grace's guilt and complicity while exploring a range of wider social issues.

The doctor's troubled relationship with his deserted landlady is interwoven around the main story - many of the essential dilemmas are the same as those Grace faced.

I did find the denouement a little unsatisfactory .

I was struck several times by parallels with His Bloody Project, which explores similar territory between social history, fiction and criminal psychology.

Overall this is a very impressive novel that pushes the boundaries of historical fiction.
Profile Image for Praveen.
152 reviews281 followers
January 15, 2020
I had just finished Alias Grace!
Meanwhile, the news came from the book world that the jury broke the rule and now there are two books that can be read this year with the same tagging of Booker prize winner 2019 on them. Peter Florence, the chair of the five-member judging panel of Booker prize said, “The more we talked about them, the more we found we loved them both so much we wanted them both to win.”

What can be a better time than this to say something about a book of Margaret Atwood, when she once more bagged this prize with Evaristo and also became the oldest ever Booker prize winner. Congrats to both of them from my side as well!

So here is this book... Alias Grace….. a unique one!
Till the end of this book, I was not mindful of the fact that this book was based on a true historical case of the 1840s. I was reading the entire work with a pure sense of fictional work. When I got there towards the end of this tale my indignation could be explained as of a reader who was trying hard to know the suspense behind the tale but then the book finished and there came an afterword from the author stating this...

“Alias Grace is a work of fiction, although it is based on reality. Its central figure, Grace Marks, was one of the most notorious Canadian women of 1840s, having been convicted of murder at the age of sixteen.”

However, this superficial rage lasted in me just for a few minutes after finishing the novel and then my overall reading experience of this book brought me back into the normalcy. And once the normalcy was restored, I once again felt the immense delight of reading this tale. Only an astute and highly proficient author can do this...converting a well known and highly publicized real story into a magnificent fictional work…such wonderful storytelling and a very deft art of narration.

Grace Marks came to a township of Toronto from Northern Ireland with her father and with her four brothers and four sisters when she was 13 and there she worked for 3 years as a servant and then at the age of 16 got convicted of murders, and then for the next many many years spending her youth in a penitentiary, she remained one of the most celebrated murderesses of her time.
Some called her an accomplished actress and a most practiced liar considering her a sham. Others felt she was innocent and sane assuming that at such a tender age she could not commit those heinous crimes. A doctor from Massachusetts Dr. Simon Jordon comes to understand her case after sixteen years. She tells her story and this doctor of her age writes down it with great observation and precaution.

She tells and observes him. He listens and infers her.

“While he writes I feel as if he is drawing me; or not drawing me, drawing on me – drawing on my skin- not with the pencil he is using but with the old- fashioned goose pen, and not with the quill end but with the feather end. As if hundreds of butterflies settled all over my face, and are softly opening and closing their wings.”

This way Atwood narrates the story of Grace Marks through these two characters in an alluring manner. This book is a classic example of class conflict, lust, complicacy of a trial and psychic battles within humans. I enjoyed every part of the book. Dr. Simon’s parallel story with all his desire-driven thoughts gives a holistic fictional sense to this book.

You will find so many things here! There is a panoramic sea voyage here, scullery maids and servant girls with their lives and emotions, a portrayal of fear in the upper class of rebellion that had occurred there during that period. An emotional relation between Grace and her friend Mary Whitney is there. There are morose and churlish characters, an interesting paddler, unsolicited relations between the upper-class employer and lower-class worker. The poetry of Atwood reflects through characters as well. Jamie Walsh, an interesting character plays sometimes songs upon his flute:

"Tom, Tom, The piper's son,
Stole a pig and away he run,
And all the tune that he could play
Was over the hills and far away"

If you are an Atwood fan.. ..Even if you have read her other great works... You cannot miss this book at all!
Profile Image for Mark  Porton.
385 reviews326 followers
May 29, 2021
This review contains spoilers

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood is an absolute belter of a book. I was absorbed from the very first page, it’s a chunkster, but as we say – it’s not too long if it’s good enough.

We follow the life of Grace Marks who is accused and found guilty of murdering Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. Grace was accused of committing this crime with the distasteful James McDermott. Halfway through this read, I discovered this story is based on a real case in Kingston, Canada back in 1843. This added gravitas to this story for me, Atwood says she ”has not changed any known facts”, this made the story even more meaningful.

Grace is found guilty along with McDermott, the latter hangs but Grace evades the noose and is sent to the penitentiary, ultimately spending close to thirty years incarcerated. She spends some of that time in an asylum and a great deal of her time working as some sort of housekeeper in the prison Governor’s house – as a trusted inmate. Grace is fortunate to have a band of supporters, ‘well-to-do’ acolytes, advocating for her release. Another main character is Dr Simon Jordan (fictional) who spends hours interviewing Grace to try and recover memories of the crime, this to try and assist in the determination of guilt or innocence. Jordan is used by Atwood as a tool to uncover Grace’s life to the reader.

Well, well, well. The author really toyed with me on this one – I spent most of my time totally sympathetic to Grace Marks, she had such a rough life, coming out from Ireland in squalid conditions, subject to ordinary and sometimes terrible treatment - probably a very typical life of a poor woman of the time. I felt sorry for her, to me she was obviously influenced by the vile McDermott as he was a very nasty piece of work. He was violent, moody, manipulative – not the type you’d sit down and have scones and jam with. So, Grace had my sympathy, but more importantly, I started to fall for this woman – I thought the way she slowly revealed her story to Dr Jordan was so gentle, timid, reserved and calm. Grace didn’t have a bad bone in her body, she was angelic. In addition, my crush on her included my imagination creating this physically beautiful creature (after all I am a bloke), but in a way where she didn’t flaunt it as she probably wasn’t even aware of how beautiful she was. Yep, I was in her corner, a vial of smelling salts, water bottle, liniment oil, a couple of dry towels at the ready and screaming words of encouragement - You Go-Girl!!.

Having said that, Atwood introduced bloody uncertainty didn’t she? Grace’s recall of events surrounding the murders was vague. Why didn’t she warn Mr Kinnear (or someone) of McDermott’s premeditated intention to murder? (well, she was obviously under McDermott’s spell – wasn’t she?) But she could have been involved, she may have given McDermott sexual favours – God forbid!! She may have been intimate with Mr Kinnear (slightly more palatable). Grace certainly had an antagonistic relationship with Nancy, who was capricious and nasty. There were some dynamics – or let’s say hypothetical dynamics in that household, where one could dream up of her having good cause to be involved.

Oh dear, what to think!!! Some people at the time thought she was evil, manipulative and psychologically inclined to commit such an atrocious act. Grace may have even had multiple-personality-disorder. We may have witnessed a bit of this during a particularly confronting hypnosis session. But was she acting when she was ‘under’ hypnosis? Aaaarrgghh.

It’s this type of uncertainty, this kind of dilemma that caused me to think about this book ALL THE TIME. I couldn’t wait to get back to it – I wanted to find evidence of her innocence. But even evidence of guilt would have helped me – at least then I could let go, move on from Grace and get my life back in order and start eating, have a shave, maybe even a shower. But no – this is all unresolved (as far as this reader is concerned). Yes, she was eventually pardoned and lived a quiet life of domestic bliss with a man who had a crush on her back in the day. A nice fella – so that part of the story was resolved. Her happiness.

But was she guilty?

There is a series on Netflix about this story – of course, I’d love to watch it. But I am hesitant as it may destroy the vivid minds-eye images I have of beautiful Grace, of all the other characters (good and bad) and the times of the 1840s – whether it be the life of the rich, those living in squalor or in captivity. I might have to give it a while. It should be in black and white, with Grace the only character in colour – but that type of editorial influence might be a bit obvious.

5 Stars
Profile Image for James.
427 reviews
November 14, 2017
Another excellent novel from the pen of Margaret Atwood – this is her masterly, fictionalised retelling of the life of Grace Marks and the part that she allegedly may or may not have played in the murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery.

The story takes place in the early to mid-19th Century and is written for the most part around Grace Marks supposed retelling of her life story to the fictional Dr Simon Jordan – events unfolds to the reader as they are told to Dr Jordan. This includes Grace’s childhood in Ireland, her subsequent traumatic emigration to Canada and a life in service prior to events concerning the murders and her eventual incarceration. Atwood paints as usual a fascinating picture, which is not only compelling but has an all pervading air of authenticity throughout. Interesting too is the developing (imagined) relationship between Jordan and Marks and the effect that their interviews together have on each other.

Dr Jordan is an aspiring and ambitious scientist – and due to the time in which the story takes place, this is a world of proto psychology, embryonic psychiatry – both very much in their infancy. It is also the parallel world of séances, possession, mesmerism, exorcism, and neuro-hypnotism – the difference between the two worlds often indistinct.

A major theme running throughout the novel is the treatment, subjugation, demonisation and conversely the romanticisation of women associated with or accused of violent crime; particularly by comparison to their male counterparts.

This is all about class, gender, age, sex and power and Margaret Atwood shines a light on the many issues central to a story such as this one and in doing so, deconstructs the assumptions/presumptions seemingly held about Grace Marks at that time – and by extension about so many cases since that time, has anything actually changed?

This is a dark, gloomy and murky world where fact blurs with fiction, guilt with innocence, sanity with madness, love with desire, memory with imagination, truth with auto-suggestion, victim with perpetrator, science with superstition, good with evil, life with death…

Atwood also provides us with a useful afterword, in which she outlines the ‘known facts’ (such as they are) concerning Grace Marks and the Kinnear/Montgomery murders. Atwood reiterates that ‘Alias Grace’ is although having its roots in fact, is overwhelmingly a work of fiction.

‘Alias Grace’ is a great novel, brilliantly written – highly recommended and not to be missed.
Profile Image for Doug Bradshaw.
257 reviews221 followers
November 13, 2015
**Minor Spoilers**

This book is as close to time travel and walking in the shoes of another person as it gets, perfect historical fiction based on a fascinating actual case of a 15 year old girl thrown into prison for a double homicide. Most of the story comes in from two perspectives, Grace Marks herself telling her story to a young MD/psychologist working to see if he can get her released from prison, and then from the young physician himself listening to her story, never sure he can truly trust her, yet physically drawn to her, in the meantime having his own weird personal life that mirrors some of the things Grace herself has gone through.

The author's writing is so beautiful, so perfect for the era (mid 1800's) full of metaphors of the colors red, blue and white, the icy burial of Grace's mother at sea. There is attention to every little detail of the times, the smells, clothing, difficult working conditions of the servants and maids, the religious attitudes of the time, the early science of psychology, the conditions in the prisons, insane asylums, the gossip, the power of men, the sad position of some of the women, the life of the entitled and affluent versus the life of the unentitled, our little Grace, who has done an amazing job of surviving the dozens of trials of her life.

In the end, it doesn't really matter how involved she was or wasn't in the murders. What matters is that her spirit was never broken and she made it through extreme conditions with the help of some great people and she did it with Grace. I love Grace.

Throughout the book I was most happy that we now have air conditioning. I always laughed when Grace talked about certain people doing or saying "coarse" things. The relationship our little do good physician had with his landlady was hilarious and sad at the same time. Oh how we have mixed emotions and impulses as humans.

This was a great 5 star read for me and I'm so glad to find Margaret Atwood.
Profile Image for Shovelmonkey1.
353 reviews875 followers
July 3, 2013
The Handmaid's Tale and the Blind Assassin were my previous Atwood reads and while I understand her alpha-author status in Canada and international reputation, her works just do not quite blow my mind enough to turn me into an obsessive Atwood completist. Before I decided to read Alias Grace it had been on my shelf for three years gathered enough dust to sculpt a dust bunny the size of an actual rabbit. I feel the same about A.S Byatt... no reason, no discernible malaise directed at these two lauded lady writers although while I'm on the subject of lady writers, did you know that A.S Byatt is Margaret Drabbles sister?! Ah the powers of google, feeding extra computer facts into my non-computer brain.

The Alias Grace in question is Grace Marks. Reputed murderess of the 1840s, this Canadian killer was a cause celebre for a number of years. Murderous Georgian ladies were uncommon so got a lot of press. Grace got a lot of press because she was young and pretty too, thus leaving a lot of the puritanical religious minded community to pause for thought when it came to considering what the perceived face of evil might really look like. Grace Marks and her alleged paramour, stable hand James McDermott were charged with the murder of their employer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper/lover Nancy Montgomery after which they fled to the United States while dressed in the garb of the murder victims. Nothing says crazy like playing dress-up in corpse clothes.

In the true tradition of all the best murder mysteries, there were a lot of question marks over whodunnit or to be more precise, who exactly did what to who and when. The trial was well documented and although McDermott was hanged for his crime, Grace escaped the noose and went on to live alternately in a penitentiary and a lunatic asylum depending on her state of mind at any given time.

Atwood subtly adapts this tale of murder most horrid by giving a voice to Grace Marks and allowing her to tell her story. Atwood freely admits that where there were uncertainties or blanks in the historic record, she gave her imagination free reign, but she could not stretch the truth too far or the story would not seem remotely credible. The historic jury is still out on whether or not Grace committed the crimes, either knowingly, unknowingly in a state delerium tremens (or some other mysterious lady-condition identified as nerves or a delicate constitution back in the bad old days) or not at all. The addition of quack-esque doctor Simon Jordan is also an excellent touch as his moral and mental decline throughout the tale stands in stark contrast to Grace's seemingly robust and sanguine nature.
Profile Image for Raul.
282 reviews203 followers
August 17, 2021
This is a fictionalized account of Grace Marks, a woman convicted of murder in 19th century Canada. Grace Marks was renowned in her time for the murders of Nancy Montgomery and Mr. Kinnear in the house she worked in as help, and Atwood takes this real incident, and its characters, and creates a brilliant story from it.

Evil has force over us, it repels and at the same time attracts us to it. It is for this reason that bad news has sold as well as it has for as long as it has, that killers often overshadow their victims with their names ending up more remembered. Its suggestions and possibilities can spring fears and at times even fantasy. And Atwood with that remarkable storytelling that I've come to admire the more I read her work, shows all this very well.

Grace Marks is a mystery, hard to figure out and a mirror that reflects what others expect of her. Whether she encouraged and aided the murders by James McDermott or she accompanied the man because of fear no one can be sure of. Some readers expressed frustration at the lack of certainty but I think that's the most brilliant part of the story. Atwood took this sense of doubt and expertly crafted the tale around it. Not just for its mystery, but how it exposes how our preconceived notions and prejudices bend us one way or the other just as it did with the people involved with Grace nearly two centuries ago.

Profile Image for Raquel Estebaran.
293 reviews176 followers
February 22, 2022
Novela de ficción basada en un evento histórico, con un doble homicidio por el que la sirvienta Grace Marks fue condenada a cadena perpetua a los dieciséis años y en la que se recrea su vida con vistas a una posible excarcelación.

Una trama intrigante en la que se elucubra acerca de la inocencia, culpabilidad o posible trastorno mental de la protagonista, cuya personalidad parece sencilla e inocente pero poco a poco se intuye más compleja.

La autora utiliza un lenguaje coherente y personajes creíbles, construidos muy en consonancia con la época a la que se refiere, y está narrado de forma magistral.
Profile Image for Libros Prestados.
426 reviews790 followers
December 22, 2017
Una historia que trata sobre la culpabilidad, la memoria (¿puede alguien sentirse culpable por lo que no recuerda?), las diferencias sociales, el sistema penitenciario (por llamarlo de alguna manera), los conocimientos sobre enfermedades mentales y la posición de la mujer en el siglo XIX.

Es como si Margaret Atwood hubiera partido de "El cuento de la criada" (la narración subjetiva de una mujer prisionera sin posibilidad de salir) y hubiera profundizado para contarnos los pormenores de una sociedad, la Canadá de mitades/finales del siglo XIX. Es un buen libro histórico, donde se nota el uso y la diversidad de fuentes. Pero sobre todo es una gran novela introspectiva.

No quiere tanto aclarar si Grace es culpable o no (no es un libro reivindicativo, como sí lo es un poco "Ritos funerales"), sino que pretende jugar con las posibilidades. Todo el mundo es culpable de algo. Eso no quiere decir que se deba castigar por ley. Todo el mundo, en un momento determinado, puede cometer un delito, eso no quiere decir que sea una mala persona incapaz de redimirse. Lo que a Atwood le interesa analizar es la fina, finísima línea, que existe entre el pensamiento y la acción, entre tener un comportamiento inadecuado y cometer un delito, entre cómo se juzga a una persona u otra según su posición social y/o sexo.

Me ha gustado más que "El cuento de la criada" porque creo que en "Alias Grace" se profundiza más en los personajes (al menos en la protagonista) y la historia está más compenetrada con el tema que pretende abordar.

Para mí ha sido una lectura interesante y absorbente.
Profile Image for Gabrielle.
996 reviews1,133 followers
July 21, 2017
Leave it to Margaret Atwood to turn a real-crime novel into a conversation about gender and class! I have to say, I never really know what I am getting into with an Atwood novel: she always goes somewhere unexpected, thought-provoking and cleverly multi-layered.

Grace Marks was accused - along with stable-hand James McDermott - of murdering her employer and his house-keeper, but her death sentence was commuted to a lifetime imprisonment. Every official version of her story seem to contradict each other and while some people are convinced of her guilt, a rather large group of people insist that she is innocent and wrongly incarcerated. Enter young and rather pompous Dr. Simon Jordan, who is trying to establish an early form of psychology as an accepted science and not charlatanism: since Grace's sanity has been in question since she was arrested while trying to run away with her accomplice, Dr. Jordan wants to try his methods on her to find out whether or not she is sane, and consequently find out whether or not she is guilty of murder.

The story is build around these interviews between Grace and the doctor, but also around the historical documentation about Grace Marks: her guilt was never firmly established and her true story remains very mysterious, giving Atwood a great opportunity to speculate on what might have happened.

Atwood's characters are always complicated creations. Grace is a strange blend of innocent and proper, while also being too well-aware of the grittier realities of life. But like a true lady, she works hard to keep on the right side of the line of propriety, even after being incarcerated and committed to a lunatics' asylum. Is she a very talented actress, simple-minded or an intelligent woman living in a day and age where being clever is a dangerous quality?

Simon Jordan is unbearably snobby and immature: he is one of those learned-men who thinks he is the only one who understands how the world works and who knows better than everybody else. Ironically, while he claims to understand a great deal about the human mind, he doesn't know himself or understand why he does what he does half the time. I greatly enjoyed laughing at him, even if he was often more perceptive of the hypocrisies and double-standards Grace and other women had to deal with.

Which leads me to what I found the most fascinating about this novel. It won't surprise anyone to know that women got the short end of the stick in the 1840's, but Atwood takes a subtle path to discuss the inequality issues: Grace is aware that the deck has been stacked against her all her life because she is poor (and a girl), and she is determined to make the best of it, but through her eyes, we see what happens to other women who dare to "misbehave". Mary Whitney's death as a direct result of her so-called transgression (even if without a man's intervention and manipulation, she would have lived), the ridiculous landlady's desires, which can only be expressed if she plays the role of the victim, the shunning endured by Nancy for her lifestyle. Simon's views are progressive for the time. For example, he is aware that it is material need that drives poor women to prostitution, and not a taste for vice. In fact, repressed sexuality is all over this book, which doesn't come as a surprise given the setting, but it is used quite skillfully to demonstrate the various hypocrisies and loopholes of the moral code that people are supposed to adhere to in a puritan society where the realities of having a human body are "distasteful".

What bothered me about "Alias Grace" is that Atwood's attempt to inject a little touch of the supernatural in the story felt strained. Grace is remarkable as a narrator, because she is utterly unreliable and mercurial, and there can be many reasons as to why she would lie or pretend to have forgotten some events. There's no one left alive who can corroborate or disclaim anything she says, and women knew that it was better to pretend to be insane and at the very least have a safe enough place to sleep than to be completely sane and destitute. Is she playing a game with the doctor, the matrons and the guards, is she genuinely nuts? Up until the last page, it's impossible to tell. But the hint that something paranormal is going on felt excessive: there's enough weirdness going on with Grace without adding this cherry on the sundae. Did Jeremiah coach her into her little "performance" or was it genuine? Honestly, who cares?! It just feels unnecessary.

A solid 4 stars. I look forward to the CBC series that will air in the fall!
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