Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor. In 1843, a 16-year-old Canadian housemaid named Grace Marks was tried for the murder of her employer and his mistress. The sensationalistic trial made headlines throughout the world, and the jury delivered a guilty verdict. Yet opinion remained fiercely divided about Marks – was she a spurned woman who had taken out her rage on two innocent victims, or was she an unwilling victim herself, caught up in a crime she was too young to understand? Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane.
In Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood reconstructs Marks’s story in fictional form. Her portraits of nineteenth-century prison and asylum life are chilling in their detail. The author also introduces Dr. Simon Jordan, who listens to the prisoner’s tale with a mixture of sympathy and disbelief. In his effort to uncover the truth, Jordan uses the tools of the then rudimentary science of psychology. Dr. Simon Jordan is 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? But the last word belongs to the book’s narrator – Grace herself.
Margaret Atwood is one of the greats. This is known. This should be known. And Alias Grace is just more proof of why.
Confession time: I saw the CBC/Netflix miniseries a while back and I only just got around to reading the book now. However, I’m so glad I did. This is just such a strong story. Grace Marks has such a strong voice, but it manages to shift and change so you’re never quite sure what Grace really is at her core, but that she’s a lot more clever and observant than everyone gives her credit for. She’s something of a shapeshifter and it’s perfectly captured in the prose. I never would have thought it possible to write from the point of view of a very mysterious, secretive character and still make me forge such a strong connection with them while still have them keeping most of their secrets. But, of course, Margaret Atwood can do that because she’s Margaret Atwood.
The other big character is Dr. Simon Jordan. His entire story is a de-construction of the idea of this benevolent man who understands the poor female character’s plight can swoop in and save her and demolish the patriarchy. That might be who Dr. Jordan wants to be, but, at his core, he’s just as much of a part of this system as everyone else.
In general, the book does a really good job of addressing the gray area that a lot of men live in where they’re not rapists or wife-beaters, but they’re still insidiously expecting something from the women in their life. You don’t hate them but you don’t quite like them either. This would be a great book to spark a discussion about how people participate in systems of oppression without even being aware of their existence.
There’s so much here that’s still relevant. Alias Grace deals with how power dynamics make saying “no” harder, how inaccessibility to safe abortions and birth control puts women, especially lower-class women, in impossible situations with no good choices left to make. At the end of the day, Grace Mark’s only power left is her knowledge of the truth of her story and, in never making it clear how much she is and isn’t divulging, or even how much she is aware of this power, both to Dr. Jordan and the reader, she maintains it.
This is the sort of book that should be taught and discussed in schools, read in book clubs, read in universities, ect, ect. Not only is it intelligent and important, it’s also a really fascinating read that I cannot recommend enough.
(Also, the miniseries is also incredible. Watch it.)