The more I read of Margaret Atwood the higher she climbs on my list of favorite writers. Some of this is because she writes in two of my favorite genres (science/speculative fiction and historic fiction). Though I had mixed feelings about The Blind Assassin, I thoroughly enjoyed the next of her works to appear on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list, Alias Grace. Inspired by a true story, the questions of truth, justice, and how to define either as a woman in the nineteenth century are at the heart of Alias Grace.
Grace Marks was only a teenager when she was working as a servant in the household of Mr. Thomas Kinnear. When her fellow servant, James McDermott, murdered the housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, as well as Mr. Kinnear, Grace was caught up in the storm, the only question was in what capacity. McDermott claimed she not only egged him on but that the whole thing was her idea and that she had promised herself to him in exchange for his doing the deed. Grace claimed little or no memory of events at various points during that fateful day and there were many who believed her to be either too dimwitted or too young to have actively participated, that she might have gone along with McDermott because she was too scared to do otherwise. While both were convicted of murder and sentenced to death, Grace’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Almost twenty years later, a committee working to petition the government for her release engages the services of Dr. Simon Jordan who specializes in mental illness to meet with Grace, evaluate her condition, and determine her likely guilt or innocence at the time of the murders.
Even in Atwood’s fictionalized version of events, Grace’s guilt or innocence is ambiguous. Part of the narrative is told from her perspective so the reader can see all the little truths she withholds during her sessions with Dr. Jordan as well as the half-truths and all the times she tells him what she knows or believes he wants to hear. Despite Dr. Jordan’s good intentions at the start of the novel, it is clear that Grace already knows that the truth doesn’t matter because minds are made up based on more than just the story they hear, particularly where women are concerned and women in subordinate positions more so.
Regardless of the way she frames her tale to Dr. Jordan, there are numerous other instances in the novel where women are condemned simply for being women. The sexual harassment and social judgment Grace describes in her past are put on display in Dr. Jordan’s interactions with Kingston society during his stay. The parallels between the events that defined Grace’s life and Dr. Jordan’s situation at the house almost feel like overkill by the end of the novel as nothing brings home Grace’s plight quite as effectively as the many times male opinions of her change on a dime, from McDermott’s back and forth (going from calling her a prude and a tease to a whore and slut) to young Jamie Walsh who goes from adulation when he thinks she’s encouraging him to vengeful scorn the moment he thinks she acted the same way towards another. The whore/Madonna paradigm is addressed heavily throughout the novel and I’ve rarely seen it addressed so clearly or so well.
Alias Grace has only furthered my love of Margaret Atwood (who remains one of my favorite writers to follow on Twitter). As much as I love her for her ability to confront large and imposing topics in her novels, it’s always executed with subtle elegance as well. Using the quilt patterns Grace mentions as titles for the different sections along with what the blocks look like and the way the stories behind the patterns are incorporated provide the perfect final touch.