Sunday, June 6, 2010

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Book Details
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Paperback, 480 pages
1997, Anchor
ISBN: 0385490445

In Alias Grace, bestselling author Margaret Atwood has written her most captivating, disturbing, and ultimately satisfying work since The Handmaid's Tale. She takes us back in time and into the life of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the nineteenth century.

Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders.

Dr. Simon Jordan, an up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness, is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories? Is Grace a female fiend? A bloodthirsty femme fatale? Or is she the victim of circumstances?

Alias Grace is a fictionalized view of the life of Grace Marks, a renowned Canadian murderess. She's a remarkably unsympathetic character. At no point in the story can the reader truly get a handle of who she really is.

I felt that Margaret Atwood could have taken a bit more liberty with Grace's guilt or innocence. In historical fiction accuracy matters, but when no facts point to the truth we rely on the author to fill in the blanks. The trouble with Alias Grace is that the reader never knows if Grace is really a murderer or a victim. Grace is an unreliable narrator, giving many different versions of the events throughout the book. She also admits that she lies to the doctor interviewing her while she relates past events. The ultimate resolution to the question is surprising, but the validity of this answer comes into question almost immediately and we never get a firm answer as to the truth. Did Grace help murder her employer and his mistress or was she really a victim lucky enough to survive? We're left to wonder and I found this rather unsatisfying.

The story is told through Grace's first person voice, Dr. Jordan in a third person view, and letters between various parties. There is a distinct variation between the book's present time and memories and documentation of past events. The book is well structured and easy to follow, despite the shifts in the time line.

Alias Grace is well written and at times intensely interesting, but more often hard to relate to or become invested in. It's a pretty slow read with some heavy material and wording. Those with avid interest in historical fiction involving murderers who don't need definitive answers will absolutely love this book, but it may be too open-ended for the average reader to bother getting into.


Margaret Atwood's


  1. I read this a long time ago. Or at least, attempted it. Not sure I ever finished. It was not a book I enjoyed. But Atwood in general has some great books!

  2. When I read this one I just immersed myself in her writing, which I love. I also liked the symbolism and Freudian kind of stuff. It was my choice for a book club, and most of the group felt much the same as you, though.

  3. I actually love books like this - where we are left wondering at the end - but oh, was I frustrated! In a good way though :)
    Great review!