Book #57

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

"Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor." Grace Marks. Female fiend? Femme fatale? Or weak and unwilling victim?”

Around the true story of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the 1840s, Margaret Atwood has created an extraordinarily potent tale of sexuality, cruelty and mystery
Atwood impresses me once again. Having read The Handmaid’s Tale last year, and now Alias Grace, I’m only amazed it’s taken me so long to discover Atwood’s work.

In this tale of not quite fiction, not quite non-fiction, Atwood explores the life and imprisonment of Grace Marks, convicted of a double murder in 1843, at the tender age of sixteen. Arrested alongside fellow servant James McDermott after the murder of their employer Thomas Kinnear, and the housekeeper Nancy Montgomery, it was widely believed at the time that Grace and McDermott were lovers. Although McDermott was hanged for the crime, Grace’s sentence was reduced to life imprisonment; and questions still remain. 

The real story has always had a great number of holes in it, and Atwood does her best to fictionalise Grace’s life, and attempt to fill in some of the blanks. It’s unclear whether the entirety of Grace’s confession was true, or whether this was an account which was felt by her lawyer to be more likely to lead to a softer outcome. Her version was also a notable contrast to James McDermott’s final words, blaming Grace for encouraging him to help her carry out the murder.

To give more depth to Grace’s tale, Atwood introduces Simon Jordan – a doctor interested in studying criminal minds, with the hope of understanding catalysts. He visits Grace to hear her story, and so her whole bloody history is revealed. Atwood allows her a personality, a family, and a journey, none of which were granted her by the journalists or authors of the 1840s. Her story is written with a lack of dialogue punctuation, and this unsettles the reader into wondering whether Grace is speaking a particular thought aloud, or merely thinking it. This uncertainty is important here, as Grace is already an unreliable narrator, so our confidence in truth dissipates when we encounter her flighty methods of recounting her life story.  
This construction is delectable – we’re given excerpts from newspapers, words from books written about the case, and even quotes taken verbatim from Grace’s confession, as well as Atwood’s fictional imaginings of Grace’s life, feelings, and motivations. The juxtaposition of fact and fiction is utterly gorgeous, and completely blurs the lines of what’s real, linking in with Grace’s confusion and inability to properly remember exactly how the events unfolded.

I was interested to explore the feminine issues raised here, also. Social custom in the nineteenth century has always been something I love to sink my teeth into; Atwood’s commentary on status, poverty, expectations and humiliation was a beautiful thing to digest. Even more interesting, was the treatment of criminal women in those days, particularly in comparison to male criminals.

At the end of the novel, we’re still unsure about the answers to the outstanding questions – what really was Grace’s involvement in the double murder? Was she in love with James McDermott? Did she sexually entice him into committing the crime? Or was she really as insane as she behaved? So much time has passed that we’ll never know the answers to these questions, so Atwood’s indefinite conclusion feels sensible, respectful, but also leaves a curiosity fire burning with her readers.

An extraordinary and fascinating fictionalised account of the life of a murderess – Atwood has created a masterpiece here, and one which will stay with me for a long time.