If Grace manages to keep several people in her life simultaneously at bay and attracted to her, the reader, too, is part of her fascinated audience. For her narrative powers are what draw one through the intricate maze of Ms. Atwood's story and lead to the heart of its complex vision of human motive and self-awareness.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt - New York Times
The murders were shocking, and the accused parties became the subjects of obsession in 19th-century Canada. Could an "uncommonly pretty" servant girl named Grace Marks really have participated in the murders of her wealthy employer and his paramour housekeeper in 1843? Or did the stable hand act alone? The true story of Grace Marks has been told and retold over the years, but never as powerfully as in Margaret Atwood's new novel, Alias Grace, recently shortlisted for Britain's Booker Prize. The prolific Canadian writer weaves poems, newspaper accounts, book excerpts and letters into a narrative so vivid and engrossing you can smell the English shaving soap, see clean sheets flapping in the breeze.
Convicted of murder at 16, Grace is imprisoned for life. The story begins as Dr. Simon Jordan of Massachusetts comes to interview her in an attempt to understand the criminally insane. "Gone mad is what they say," Grace says, "and sometimes run mad, as if mad is a direction, like west." The earnest doctor is dominated by a mother who urges him to give up on helping lunatics, invest in sewing machines and marry a well-born woman. Grace — working class girl, murderess — comes to fascinate him.
Simon visits her regularly at the governor's house, where she works as a trustee. The story revolves around these meetings: Grace tells her story in her coy, perfunctory manner, and he scribbles notes, occasionally pulling out objects — a fresh apple, a candlestick — that might trigger a memory and reveal the truth. "What he wants is certainty." But Grace claims partial memory loss. Her story runs in and out of shadows, but never smack into what satisfies the doctor as truth. "It's as if I never existed, because no trace of me remains, I have left no marks," Grace says. "And that way I cannot be followed. It is almost the same as being innocent."
Both Grace and Simon are looking for their own truth, which, we ultimately discover, is ghostly, elusive — nothing the doctor can write neatly in his little ledger for himself or for her, or for posterity. Atwood makes their search a story for the ages.
Paige Willimas - Salon
Basing her new work on a sensational double murder that occurred in Canada in 1843, poet/novelist Atwood has crafted a forceful tale that probes deep into the psychology of accused murderess Grace Marks even as it exposes the social conditions that made such a murder possible. Less caustically feminist than in some previous works but still concerned with the forces that have subjugated women throughout history, Atwood follows Grace from Ireland, which her feckless father is finally forced to depart; through the family's ocean voyage, on which her mother dies; to Canada, where she starts working as a servant at age 12 and befriends Mary Whitney, whose subsequent death from a botched abortion comes, perhaps quite literally, to haunt her. Grace ends up at the Kinnear household, where the master and his housekeeper-mistress are murdered by the stableman McDermott—supposedly with Grace's help. Grace herself has no recollection of the events, and young American doctor Simon Jordan works ceaselessly to uncover her memories and solve the puzzle of her guilt or innocence. That solution, when it finally arrives, is not wholly satisfying, and attentive readers will have surmised it well beforehand, but Atwood's compelling prose, fine attention to historical detail, and firm guidance of her story make the long trip to the book's end entirely worth the trouble.
In 1843, at the age of 16, Grace Marks, a recent Irish immigrant to Canada, was sentenced to life in prison as an accomplice in the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. The teen confessed to the crime early and later claimed no memory of the events. She was arrested in upstate New York, having run from her employer's house with the handyman, who was hanged for the crimes. Atwood became interested in the case, a true story, and added the involvement of Dr. Simon Jordan. This novel is set 16 years after the crime took place when Jordan, who is interested in the fledgling science of psychology, is recruited by a local Methodist minister intent on proving Grace's innocence to examine her and determine the "truth." Readers are made privy to innumerable details of daily life in that time and place. The concept is intriguing, and while YAs never actually learn the truth, they certainly become involved in Grace's history as well as Simon's bumbling attempts at independence from a domineering mother. Atwood may be playing a game with her readers, but it is one in which many will willingly participate for the fun and mystery while learning about life in colonial Canada. While long, this story reads quickly and all of the characters are compelling, different, and well developed.
School Library Journal
A fascinating elaboration—and somewhat of a departure for Atwood of the life of Grace Marks, one of Canada's more infamous killers.
As notorious as our own Lizzy Borden, Grace Marks was barely 16 when she and James McDermott were arrested in 1843 for the brutal murder of their employer Thomas Kinnear and his pregnant mistress/housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. The trial was a titillating sensation; McDermott was hanged, and Grace was given the dubious mercy of life imprisonment. Some felt her an innocent dupe, others thought her a cold-blooded murderer; the truth remains elusive. Atwood reimagines Grace's story, and with delicate skill all but replaces history with her chronicle of events.
Anchoring the narrative is the arrival of Dr. Simon Jordan, who has come to investigate the sanity of Grace after some 16 years of incarceration. A convert to the new field of psychiatry, Jordan is hoping to help Grace recover her memory of the murders, which she claims no recollection of. He begins by asking for her life story. Grace tells him of her first commission as a laundry maid in a grand house, and of her dear friend Mary, dead at 16 from a botched abortion. On she goes until she calmly relates the events that led up to the murders, and her attempted escape with McDermott afterward. Hypnotism finally "restores" her memory (or is Grace misleading Jordan?), with results that are both shocking and ambiguous.
Employing a variety of narratives—Grace's own, Dr. Jordan's, letters, newspaper accounts from the time, poems from the period, and the published confessions of the accused—a complex story is pieced together. The image of the patchwork quilt, used repeatedly in the novel, is a fitting metaphor for the multiplicity of truths that Grace exemplifies.
Through characteristically elegant prose and a mix of narrative techniques, Atwood not only crafts an eerie, unsettling tale of murder and obsession, but also a stunning portrait of the lives of women in another time.
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