One From the Archive: ‘Alias Grace’ by Margaret Atwood *****

Whilst I have found some of Atwood’s work a little hit and miss in the past, I was very much looking forward to engrossing myself in this, an incredibly appealing-sounding historical novel.  Of all her works, the thread of story within Alias Grace is the one which captured my attention the most.

Alias Grace was shortlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize, and was the recipient of the Canadian Giller Prize.  The novel has received wondrous acclaim from reviewers since its publication in 1996. It centres around the true story of Grace Marks, a servant who was arrested for her ‘cold-blooded’ part in two notorious murders in July 1843, at the age of sixteen.  Thomas Kinnear, a wealthy farmer in Ontario, and his housekeeper-cum-mistress, Nancy Montgomery, were shot and strangled respectively.  Grace’s co-worker and accomplice, a twenty-year-old stable hand named James McDermott, was hung for his part in proceedings.  Grace, on account of her sex and young age, was committed to an asylum in Kingston, Ontario, where she remained for thirty years.

Atwood is masterful at using a variety of different techniques to set the scene throughout.  As well as the story told in Grace’s own words – or, at least, Atwood’s imagining of them – we also have a narrative based upon a fictional doctor named Simon Jordan, who is researching Grace’s case.  Materials such as newspaper articles and poems have also been used to further shape the historical context.

Alias Grace is beautifully written.  Grace’s voice particularly has been incredibly tautly crafted, and Atwood’s portrayal of her feels realistic from the very beginning: ‘Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: murderess, murderess.  It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.  Murderer is merely brutal.  It’s like a hammer, a lump of metal.  I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices’.  Grace is a captivating protagonist; although we know from the first what she has been convicted of, an awful lot of sympathy is soon created for her on behalf of the reader.  Atwood is empathetic towards her young character, and makes her come to life once more upon the page.

Whilst I didn’t adore Alias Grace, it is certainly an incredibly well-crafted – and even quite moving – novel, and it is my favourite of Atwood’s books to date.  I particularly admired the way in which she tied so many historical elements together – the use of historical quilt designs and foodstuffs, for example.  Alias Grace, despite its length, is a gripping and fast-moving novel, which is sure to appeal to any reader with an interest in crime or general historical fiction.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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