Reviewer: Beth, of Beth’s List Love (First published July 2012)
Recently I have read a string of books with protagonists who are murderers or at least thieves. In this book, the guilt or innocence of the protagonist is at least in doubt. While my last several protagonists were self-professed criminals, Grace Marks, of Alias Grace has been convicted of murder, but claims she cannot recall critical details of events surrounding the deaths for which she has been imprisoned. The novel is based on a real criminal case, and Atwood’s treatment of the topic is artistically masterful without giving up a bit of the suspense of a good murder mystery. My Goodreads review begins with an excerpt from early in the book, as Grace is getting to know the doctor who has traveled from Massachusetts to interview her.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
And that is how we go on. He asks a question, and I say an answer, and he writes it down. In the courtroom, every word that came out of my mouth was as if burnt into the paper they were writing it on, and once I said a thing I knew I could never get the words back; only they were the wrong words, because whatever I said it would be twisted around, even if it was the plain truth in the first place. And it was the same thing with Dr. Bannerling at the Asylum. But now I feel as if everything I say is right. As long as I say something, anything at all, Dr. Jordan smiles and writes it down, and tells me I am doing well.
While he writes, I feel he is drawing me; or not drawing me, drawing on me–drawing on my skin–not with the pencil he is using, but with an old-fashioned goose pen, and not with the quill end, but with the feather end. As if hundreds of butterflies have settled all over my face, and are softly opening and closing their wings.
But underneath that is another feeling, a feeling of being wide-awake and watchful. It’s like being wakened suddenly in the middle of the night, by a hand over your face, and you sit up with your heart going fast, and no one is there. And underneath that is another feeling still, a feeling like being torn open; not like a body of flesh, it is not painful as such, but like a peach; and not even torn open, but too ripe and splitting open of its own accord.
And inside the peach there’s a stone.
In Alias Grace, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 1997, Margaret Atwood tackles a historical mystery from a small town in Canada in the mid-19th Century. Did Grace Marks participate in the murder of her employer and his housekeeper/mistress or was she simply an innocent bystander taken hostage by the stable-hand who was convicted and hanged for the crime? The real Grace Marks was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life in prison, and eventually Grace was released. Atwood approaches the events in the tale through the device of a young doctor, Simon Jordan, who comes to interview Grace in order to test methods of dealing with amnesia. The novel alternates between two points of view. Grace reflects on her current situation, as in the quote above, and also provides edited and unedited versions of the answers to questions Dr. Jordan asks her. The other perspective is the young doctor’s. He struggles with big and small decisions about his own personal life, while at the same time trying to discern the truth about the crime Grace is accused of committing. Through these two lenses, the novel explores class issues, sex roles, the nature of memory, and the 19th century spirtualism craze, among other themes. The characters are well and sympathetically drawn. Grace is a strong, perceptive and appealing heroine. Her life history has made her both wise and circumspect in her dealings with those around her. Dr. Jordan is younger and more naive, and serves as a fascinating counterpoint to Grace. Atwood begins each section of the novel with selections from literature and from contemporary documents about the historical murder case. The book gets under your skin, and is very hard to put down. In some ways it is the most straightforward and accessible of the Atwood novels I have read, but that doesn’t make it a simple book. It’s a suspenseful and fascinating read.