Saturday, September 17, 2011

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (1996)

The always amazing Corie lent me this copy of Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (1996) quite some time ago, but even though I'd read it back in college, I decided I wanted to read it again. And I'm glad I did, because it is awesome and I didn't remember all that much about it. Atwood is an author that I read so much of in high school and college but not that much of for the past dozen or so years. I think I might need to rectify that...

In Alias Grace, Atwood gives us a literary true crime novel based on the real story of Grace Marks [archives connection: check out the neat interface on a digitized copy of their "true confessions" from the Toronto Public Library]. Marks was an Irish immigrant who came to Canada with her family when she was 12. Her mother died on the ocean voyage over, and her drunk father wasn't much of a provider for her and her many brothers and sisters. When she was almost 13 she took a job as a servant, her father and siblings eventually left Toronto for the west, and she was on her own. She worked through several positions, accepting an offer to serve as a maid at Mr. Thomas Kinnear's country home when she was almost 16. Mr. Kinnear was a wealthy bachelor, and something of a dark sheep in the neighborhood. His staff was very small, just Grace, the housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery (who was suspiciously close to Mr. Kinnear), and a recently hired man named James McDermott who saw to the horses and other outdoorsy chores.

Some facts are unarguable: in 1843 both Nancy Montgomery and Thomas Kinnear were murdered and their bodies hidden in the cellar. James McDermott and Grace Marks took valuables from the home and went to Toronto where they caught a ferry over to the United States. They were arrested the morning after they arrived, tried, and sentenced to death. McDermott was hanged, but Grace Marks had her sentence commuted to life in the Kingston Penitentiary. She also spent some time in the asylum.

In Atwood's book, we learn Grace's story through a mixture of contemporary newspaper clippings, the published confession, letters from the main characters, and Grace's own narrative, both inside her head and what she decides to say to Simon Jordon, a young psychiatrist who is studying her case. Grace claims that she has no memory of what happened during the time of the murders, and Simon hopes to cure her memory and find out the truth. Really, though, Simon is kind of a dilettante. He is an American who comes from money, and instead of taking over his father's company, he has decided to dabble in the emerging science of psychology. He spends some time in Europe, and then returns to North America but still can't face his clinging mother and her solitary goal of getting him to marry and settle down.

Grace is hard to figure out. By this time she has been in prison for 16 years and has learned how to read people and how to keep things to herself. She manages to seem both very innocent and straightforward and extremely dangerous and duplicitous. Atwood pitches Grace's voice just right so that even the reader (who is often inside her head) can't really tell what she has done and what she knows:

I am sitting in the sewing room, at the head of the stairs in the Governor's wife's house, in the usual chair at the usual table with the sewing things in the basket as usual, except for the scissors. They insist on removing those from within my reach, so if I want to cut a thread or trim a seam I have to ask Dr. Jordon, who takes them out of his vest pocket and returns them to it when I have finished. He says he does not feel any such rigmarole is necessary, as he considers me to be entirely harmless and in control of myself. He appears to be a trusting man.

Although sometimes I just bite the thread off with my teeth.
(p. 62)

Alias Grace is a satisfying fictionalization of a true crime and a well-researched piece of historical fiction, but it also engages issues of gender and class in meaningful ways, dips its toes into psychology, sex, the penitentiary system, mesmerism, quilting, journalism, immigration, and the occult. All that and it also manages to be a fascinating read that is hard to put down. Definitely one of my favorite of Atwood's novels, and a great place to start if you haven't read any of her books.

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