Sunday, August 16, 2015

Alias Grace: Review

Alias Grace is Margaret Atwood's fictional retelling of the true story of Grace Marks. Grace was a Canadian maid who was convicted in 1843 for her involvement in the murder of Thomas Kinnear, her employer, and she was also suspected of the murder of Kinnear's housekeeper and mistress, Nancy Montgomery. James McDermott, the outside man who tended the animals and did the rough work around the house, was also charged. He was found guilty and hanged. But the decision on Grace was not so clear-cut. There was disagreement about whether she was a full participant in the murders or if she was an unwilling or unwitting accessory. Her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Because of her pretty face many thought her a wayward siren with designs on her employer and believed that jealousy of Nancy's relationship with Kinnear was the driving force behind the murders. There were a few people who believed in Grace's innocence and petitioned regularly on her behalf for a pardon. After being imprisoned for nearly thirty years, Grace finally received her pardon and left Canada for northern New York where she faded into the surroundings of her new land. 

This book follows the efforts of her supporters in one of their many attempts for a pardon--revolving primarily around the fictional psychiatrist Dr. Simon Jordan and his sessions with Grace Marks. Her supporters have asked Dr. Jordan to help them find evidence that will support Grace's innocence. His methods are simple--win the patient's trust, bring objects for her to identify and make associations with, and coax her into to telling her story. Grace has long claimed that she cannot remember what happened that fateful day at the Kinnear house--that any statements or confessions she made were prompted by her lawyer in an effort to get a lighter sentence. Jordan's goal is to find the key to unlock those hidden memories. Dr. Du Pont, another doctor who favors hypnotism as a treatment,  is also interested in Grace. And it is through a hypnotic session that the most startling memories are revealed. But will the efforts of the doctors really be useful in procuring Grace's pardon--or will they do more harm than good? 

Atwood, it seems to me, has two purposes in Alias Grace. The first, and of course most obvious, to tell us Grace's story in an entertaining manner and to fill in with speculation where the bald facts of history are lacking. She tells us in the afterword that there were many portions of the story where the facts were simply not known. She weaves a very convincing tale from the threads she has. Or, to use a theme from the book, she patches together a very pretty quilt-story indeed. Secondly, Atwood examines the nature of memory and truth. Truth as it is connected with memory and truth as it is connected with intention. 

As Jordan works on unlocking Grace's memory, he often wonders how truthful she is with the story she's telling. And our omniscient look into Grace's thoughts tells us she's holding back and sometimes deliberately telling Jordan what she thinks he wants to hear. So at the conclusion, we're left wondering if the answer Atwood has given us is any nearer the truth than the incomplete story which history has left behind.

We also have to wonder at the truth of Jordan's intentions as well as those who are seeking Grace's pardon. Do they really care about Grace or merely seeing their own work recognized? Jordan wants to set up his own clinic someday and needs some new and astonishing results to get the funding he'll need. The minister who is leading the committee working on Grace's behalf may only want earthly recognition for his good works. 

This is a well-told tale of true crime, giving a voice to the perceived culprit and leaving the reader to determine just how culpable (if at all) Grace was. The research and historical detail are impeccable. A very absorbing piece of fictional history. ★★★★ 


Dorothy N said...

Thanks so much for the wonderful reveiew of Alias Grace!

fredamans said...

I love Margaret Atwood and love true stories! I have a feeling I would thoroughly enjoy this one! Great review!

Anonymous said...

This one has been on the TBR for too long - thansk Bev, sounds really good.

J F Norris said...

Fantastic review of this stupendous book. I read this back when it was first published. Also this was at a time when I had a membership in the Quality Paperback Book Club. It's one of the few books I still own from those days because it was such a memorable read for me. It was the first novel I had read by Atwood and I know it got me to seek out more of her work. I still remember the way the book was designed, how the chapter titles (or was it just sections?) were names of quilt patterns, the overall structure of the novel, and the gripping narrative. It was favorite book of mine for a long time.

Bev Hankins said...

thanks, Sergio and John. It's been a long time since I read anything by Atwood. I always love her stuff when I do. I'm not sure why I go so long in between books, though.

JaneGS said...

I've had this book for years, and it really sounds terrific. I need to get it on my TBR list for someday soon. I like books like this that bridge fact and fiction, are ambiguous and open-ended.

Good review!