Bionic Jean's Reviews > Alias Grace

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
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bookshelves: read-authors-a-b, mystery-crime

"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. (view spoiler) 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.
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Reading Progress

November 19, 2013 – Shelved
December 1, 2013 – Started Reading
December 1, 2013 –
page 231
December 2, 2013 –
page 332
December 3, 2013 –
page 424
December 4, 2013 –
page 542
December 5, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-31 of 31 (31 new)

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message 1: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Sounds intriguing!

Bionic Jean It is different from anything else I've read by her.

Leslie Great review Jean!

message 4: by Tracey (new) - added it

Tracey sounds intriguing Jean

Bionic Jean Thank you Leslie, Tracey and Cheryl :)

B the BookAddict As always, Jean, you have written a well-constructed and considered review. Adding this to my tbr right now!

B the BookAddict Well, bowl me over, our library does not have one single Atwood book on file! Unbelievable!

Bionic Jean Thanks Bette - but wow! Hopefully they at least give you the facility to request interlibrary loans...?

B the BookAddict Yes, Jean, we have Inter-Library Service so Alias Grace has been duly noted and requested:)

Alice Poon Thank you, Jean, for the wonderful review. I've been looking for a good novel by Margaret Atwood and this sounds like one that I should add :)

Bionic Jean Thanks Alice - and Bette. Hope you both enjoy the read :)

message 12: by Diane (new) - added it

Diane I have had this book at home for years. You've given it a wonderful review, Jean, I will have to try to get to it asap. I've seen Margaret Atwood in person twice, at the LA Times Festival of Books. She gives a great interview and has a wonderful personality - she's quite humorous!

Bionic Jean Thank you very much, Diane. I hope you enjoy it :)

I can imagine her sense of humour - maybe dry and rather acerbic...

message 14: by B the BookAddict (last edited Sep 17, 2014 11:58AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

B the BookAddict Not to gush, Jean, but I am indebted to you as your review prompted me to read this wonderful and intriguing novel; thank you:)

Bionic Jean Lovely, thank you Bette! I am so pleased that you enjoyed it :)

message 16: by Elyse (new) - added it

Elyse Walters Excellent review... Sounds Terrific!! Adding it!!'

Bionic Jean Oh yes, do Elyse! For some reason I thought you'd already read it ...

message 18: by Elyse (new) - added it

Elyse Walters Not yet. Soooo many books I've missed !

message 19: by Deanna (new)

Deanna excellent review, Jean!!!

Bionic Jean Thank you very much Deanna :)

Mary Beth *Traveling Sister* Great review Jean! I really need to read this. I've heard so many good things about it.

message 22: by Bionic Jean (last edited Mar 31, 2016 01:35AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bionic Jean Thanks Mary! I think you might enjoy it - hope so :)

message 23: by HBalikov (new)

HBalikov Thank you Jean for giving me impetus to add Alias Grace to my list!

Bionic Jean You're welcome, thanks H :) It's an unusual one I think for Margaret Atwood.

Praveen Great Review .. Jean! I too read it a few weeks was very enjoyable !

message 26: by Diane (new)

Diane Wallace good review!

Bionic Jean Thank you very much, Praveen and Diana :)

message 28: by [deleted user] (new)

Jean, unquestionably my favorite of Ms. Atwood's novels. Your review makes me want to go back and reread, but there's too much ahead! !

Bionic Jean I really enjoyed it too! I don't always enjoy her novels, although I wish I did. And thank you Nell :)

message 30: by Karen (new)

Karen Brilliant review Jean, as always. I have owned this book for years and since reading your review, I am considering reading it soon.

Bionic Jean I think you will enjoy it Karen, and look forward to hearing what you think. Thank you for your kind words :)

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