[This Post Contains Spoilers]
When I put Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood on my reading list a few months ago, I didn’t realize it was a 552-page book. I also didn’t realize it was about an infamous, true story from the 1800s about a 16-year-old Canadian housemaid named Grace Marks who was tried for the murder of her employer and his mistress, and subsequently sentenced to life in prison. And I was pleasantly surprised by all of this.
Over the course of this book, Atwood uses multiple forms, including letters, poems and narrative, to tell the story of Grace’s life. While in prison, living out a life sentence as quietly as possibly, she is interviewed by Dr. Simon Jordan who prompts her to describe her life from her early years which included an abusive father, a dead mother, hungry siblings and a trip across the ocean, up through the events which led to the murders and her life that followed.
According to many of the Goodreads reviews, this is a popular choice for book clubs, and many would not have picked up it otherwise. To be honest, I had never even heard of this book until I put it on my reading list, and that is tragic because I really enjoyed this book. It took some time getting into with of the different styles of story telling, with some of the sections lacking quotation marks while some are letters to characters we never meet, and others are strictly traditional narrative, but it really works.
Although the story puts most of the focus on Grace Marks, she isn’t the only character we follow in scene. Dr. Jordan seems to have troubles of his own with his landlady who he finds himself supporting and subsequently sleeping with while her husband is away, and intense pressure from his mother to get married (but definitely not to the landlady). These sections give us interesting insight into both the time period, and also what people outside of prison think of Grace, whether or not she actually had a hand in the murders, or was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In terms of people who believe she did or did not commit the murders, the characters seem to be evenly split. Dr. Jordan’s interviews with Grace are the result of a committee of people who believe her to be innocent and wish to prove this in order to file another appeal. But interestingly enough, Grace doesn’t seem to care if she goes free or not anymore. She simply exists, telling her story with every intimate detail she can remember, which makes her dark moments of lapsed memory so unusual.
To be honest, I was wondering about this whole “Mary Whitney” character that Grace talks about repeatedly in the first half of the book, but we never meet. During her time with Dr. Jordan we do eventually learn that Mary was a very close friend of Grace’s from one of her first housekeeping jobs, but died as a result of an abortion. But I still wondered. Lapsed moments of memory? Stories from other people about her out of character behavior during those moments? Time spent in a mental institution? New medicine being tried by Dr. Jordan? Very early on, I knew there was going to be something about a multiple personality, and after a session of hypnosis, we find this to be the case–sort of? This is where the time period comes into play more. No one knows what Dissociative Disorder, or multiple personality disorder, is at this time, so when Grace starts saying, under hypnosis, that she is Mary Whitney inhabiting Grace’s body and it was she who committed the murders, not Grace, everyone thinks it’s actually the spirit of Mary.
I just don’t know how to feel about that.
There are a million things done right in this book. The writing is absolutely stunning, for one. Each sections and form of writing takes on the tone necessary for it to work. The characters are well created and there is immense consistency over the course of a very long work. I was blown away by the intricate, delicate details that really make the story of Grace’s life interesting. And Grace’s unique take on the situations around her was very compelling, especially when it came to the catch-22 for women who can be promised marriage, end up pregnant, then left to shame or death. If they didn’t kill themselves or the baby, they were shamed and went crazy. If they did, then they were crazy all along. One thing about all of Atwood’s novels is how there is always, in some way, a discussion of the plight of women, which is something I really appreciate, particularly since it’s not usually very heavy-handed. The plot and mystery of this book pulls more emphasis than the gender disparity.
But there was something about the end of this book that didn’t quite work for me. In reality, Grace Marks was pardoned in her later life after spending upwards of 30 or more years in prison. Atwood stays true to this and Grace goes to America to live with a person from her past. But all of the other characters sort of disappear. Yes, I wanted to end with Grace. Honestly, I thought she was guilty and I didn’t want to see her free, no matter how much I sympathized with her. She was clearly dangerous. But we follow her to the end, to her freedom and new life, and it doesn’t feel satisfying. Really, everything lost it for me the minute we came to the hypnosis. It just became…too much. I would rather the hints have been there and it all been left ambiguous.
In terms of my thesis–it’s great to read a story told in different ways with people saying contradicting things and never being sure who to trust. That is definitely a big part of my thesis and I’m glad I read this book. Well, read is not a strong enough word. I devoured this book, and in only three days.