What better book to review on Halloween that one about an accused murderess?! This has been on my TBR for quite some time and I’m so glad that I finally had the chance to read it. Below is the synopsis, followed by my review which does contain spoilers.
“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?”
-Synopsis from Goodreads
This book completely took me by surprise! I was riveted the entire time, but the ending caught me off guard and I’m still thinking about it, days after finishing the story. I shouldn’t be surprised by this, since Margaret Atwood is a literary master, after all.
Patchwork of Grace’s Life
The story is told through chapters that are named for patchwork quilting patterns, and is meant to weave together different parts of Grace’s life as she is revealing them to Dr. Simon Jordan. The intent is to construct a brand new image of her life, by piecing together all the most important moments to shed light on the bigger picture.
I liked this storytelling style thought it was very effective at letting the reader form their own impression of Grace before that pivotal moment that changed her life forever. Each section starts off with real quotes from newspapers at the time that paint a depiction of Grace that may or may not be close to the truth, leaving her innocence and possible motives to linger in the reader’s mind during each chapter.
Infamous Murderess…Or Not?
From the moment Grace is put on trial, no one can decide whether or not she is guilty, yet the title of murderess is the one that seems to stick. It reminded me a lot of today when someone is accused of a crime and the public has so many opinions about it. Journalists play a huge part in how someone is portrayed in the media, and that depiction can either sway opinions or make people double down. In Alias Grace, the consensus among the public is that Grace was the mastermind behind the murders and that James McDermott was her accomplice. Grace is painted as being jealous of Thomas Kinnear’s relationships with Nancy Montgomery, and the jealousy being what led to the double murders.
Grace is very much resigned to the fact that no one will ever believe her, that she simply can’t remember what happened. She has accepted that she will spend the rest of her life in jail. She appears to have little chance of ever being believed, or even pardoned, so she has given up hope that her situation will ever change for the better.
Secrets of the Mind
Dr. Simon Jordan hold the belief that he can help Grace reconstruct her memory. His primary assumption is that Grace has some sort of amnesia that is preventing her from recalling the events of the murders, and that his objective is to bring back her memory. He has not made up his mind as to whether or not Grace is guilty prior to meeting her, and is ready to listen to her story fully.
“He must concentrate his intellectual forces…They are nearing the blank mystery, the area of erasure; they are entering the forest of amnesia, where things have lost their names. In other words, they are retracing (day by day, hour by hour) the events which immediately preceded the murders. Anything she says now may be a clue; any gesture; any twitch. She knows; she knows. She may not know that she knows, but buried deep within her, the knowledge is there.”-from Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Dr. Jordan’s methods are not as effective as he thinks they will be, and he grows more impatient with Grace every day. He feels that she is intentionally holding something back, some big secret or mystery that will explain the events that took place, but so far, nothing is revealed. The reader gets insight as to both Dr. Jordan’s perspective of their meetings, and Grace’s perspective, as they progress.
Characters and Setting
In order for Grace to tell her story, she must start from the beginning and explain, in remarkable detail, the people and places that were of importance in her life. Dr. Jordan at first thinks that she is taking too much time to explain various events, but everything becomes relevant in time.
Two important characters are Mary Whitney, who Grace worked with in her first servant job, and Jeremiah the Peddler, who was a frequent visitor at the household where she and Mary Whitney worked. I won’t reveal the specifics, but they both play a big role in Grace’s story, even after she leaves that job and goes on to her next one, ultimately ending up to work for Thomas Kinnear.
Dr. Jordan also becomes a prominent character in this story in his own right. He grows increasingly frustrated that he has achieved no results with Grace.
“What exactly is he doing here? His hands are empty; he has discovered nothing. He has been traveling blindly, whether forward he cannot say, without learning anything expect that he has not yet learned anything unless he counts the extent of his own ignorance; like those who have searched fruitlessly for the source of the Nile. Like them, he must take into account the possibility of defeat.”-from Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
I have to admit I was pretty disappointed in his character by the end of the story. I guess I was also expecting some groundbreaking discovery to happen between he and Grace, and unfortunately the underwhelming results crippled his confidence and ability to see a future for himself as a doctor, for Grace or anyone else.
The setting of Toronto is one that was new to me, and the descriptions were so rich that I felt as though I was actually there. The amount of research Margaret Atwood must have done to achieve this must have been monumental. I am one of those people who has no desire to travel to the past because I am very aware of the hardships people faced, especially women and people of color. Grace’s family’s journey from Ireland to Canada sounded horrific, and their new life in Canada was dismal as they had no one and no money to support themselves at first
Additionally, Margaret Atwood painted what I thought was a realistic picture of everyday life in the mid-1800s by which I mean, it definitely did not sound like a place for me. There was a part where Mary Whitney told Grace she should wash her hair only every 3-4 months so that she wouldn’t die from it. I knew that people didn’t bathe frequently, but the widespread belief that washing your hair too much would result in death was new to me. Little details like that are what made the story seem so real and the reading experience so immersive.
I’m historically bad at predicting what will happen at the end of books, and there was no exception to that here. Should I have seen the Mary Whitney twist coming? It was such a shock to me but I’m wondering if it was obvious to everyone else?
I was also really surprised by what ended up happening with Dr. Jordan, which I mentioned above. The chapter where he left seemed to me like he was dreaming, and it was only halfway through the subsequent chapter that I realized that he actually had left.
The letters that concluded the story were hard to read, only because I really felt for Grace and the confusion she must have experience. I was so happy for her at the end though, and the way her story left off seemed very appropriate.
This was such a good book and although it felt long at times, the ending more than made up for it. I am so glad that I took the time to read it.
Goodreads rating: Five stars