Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

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Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: The story of Grace Marks, a Canadian servant girl imprisoned for a murder of her employer and his mistress is retold by Atwood in a demanding but satisfactory multi-voiced format. Plenty of research resulted in a remarkable account which combines suspenseful mystery, psychological analysis and a unique insight into social mores of the 19th century. Not a quick read but a compelling one and very much worth the effort.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 545 Date: September 1997
Publisher: Virago Press Ltd
ISBN: 1860492592

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Grace Marks is a murderess. She is an ex-servant girl; in prison for taking part at the age of 16 in the murder of her employer and his mistress. Her alleged partner in crime was hanged for his deeds but as opinions about her were widely divided she was spared the gallows and sentenced to life imprisonment. The next 30 years of Grace's life are spent in jails and asylums. When we meet her, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders. Dr Simon Jordan, a practitioner of just-being-born clinical psychology is employed to prove her innocence by people who are trying to grant Grace a pardon.

Her remarkable story unravels before the reader's eyes, told by numerous voices including her own, Dr Jordan, his letters, press-cuttings, other letters and media articles of the time. Grace is a true-life character and the story of her alleged crime and the trial is real; but all that surrounds the raw facts of the murder, the trial and her subsequent imprisonment and release is Atwood's fiction.

And mightily compelling fiction it is, using different voices, different styles and other devices to create the illusion of a collection of facts and reference materials interspersed with the internal monologue of the main character telling the main story, the story which should be told - but is not being told - to Dr Jordan.

Apart from being a murder-mystery (albeit not a very standard one), the novel works deeply on a psychological level as it deals with Grace's life and family history, her experiences, the trauma she undergoes as a teenage servant girl and, more interestingly, the issue of madness in general. It is the psychology that, eventually, provides the solution to the mystery presented to the reader. I will not give it away as the novel is partially - unbelievably for this kind of book - kept going by suspense.

I have to say that this solution to Grace Marks' mystery was, to me, deeply unsatisfactory. I don't like modern quackish psychology/psychiatry and the increasingly popular notions of individual pathology it peddles, and thus I was rather disappointed. Of course, I can be wrong: maybe Atwood actually meant something much more interesting: spiritual and mysterious rather than dubiously psychopathological...

What really made the novel for me, though, was the captivating evocation of the 19th-century mindset. We have the opportunity to explore this mindset mainly through two characters: Grace Marks herself and Dr Jordan. The themes that are touched upon are numerous, but the two that I found most compelling and that stayed with me long, long after reading the book were the attitudes to sex and gender and the attitudes to social class.

In fact, the attitudes of men to women and what the women think of themselves somehow mirror the attitudes of the middle/wealthier classes to the servants and the poor. The gulf between those groups is like a gulf between two different species; it's perceived as uncrossable; the difference is seen as due to heredity and very much real rather than socially constructed; and nobody doubts it - even the poor and the women themselves believe in its existence and accept its reality.

The characters are not particularly likeable, but they are strangely compelling. You get interested even if you cannot relate to them and I think this is one of the great successes of the book: to create characters that are very believable, multidimensional, convincing and at the same time quite alien. I had a feeling of staring through glass: with my eyes wide open but through the glass nevertheless.

Readers familiar with Atwood from the 'Handmaid's Tale' should be warned that this is definitely a more demanding, slower and colder, but perhaps, in the long run, more satisfactory read.

If you enjoyed this book you might also like to read Arthur and George by Julian Barnes, which also looks at the Victorian mindset and looks at a long-forgotten miscarriage of justice. You might also enjoy Damn His Blood: Being a True and Detailed History of the Most Barbarous and Inhumane Murder at Oddingley and the Quick and Awful Retribution by Peter Moore. For a debut novel, you might like to try Ellipsis by Nikki Dudley.

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