Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace coverMy final book of the summer reading challenge and I am thrilled to have finished this one just under the wire! This is my third Margaret Atwood book I’ve read and it just might be my favorite one yet; earlier this summer I read The Blind Assassin and a few years ago I read The Handmaids Tale. While I greatly enjoyed the The Blind Assassin, I found myself getting slightly bored at times; it’s a brilliant novel and has a phenomenal ending, but a few sections in the middle tended to drag for me. With Alias Grace, however, I was hooked from the start and could not put the book down until I was finished.

The novel is based on an actual case of murder in the 1840s. It tells the story of Grace Marks, a beautiful, 16-year-old girl, who was convicted for her involvement in the murders of her employer and his housekeeper, who was also his mistress. Grace is serving a life sentence but claims to have no memory of the crimes. That is all true, and Margaret Atwood does not change any known historical facts. She says, “Where mere hints and outright gaps exist in the records, I have felt free to invent.” And what a brilliant writer and inventor she is. In the novel, a young doctor studying mental illness begins visiting Grace, hoping to tease out her memory and determine if she is a true amnesiac or a gifted liar and ruthless “murderess.” The chapters alternate between the doctor, Simon’s, experiences with Grace, as well as his own experiences in the small Canadian town where he is staying, along with chapters on Grace’s experiences in jail and her meetings with him. Chapters in-between also include letters from various key players in the novel, such as the doctor, a reverend petitioning for her release, and Grace herself, among others.

Because the narrative switches around from various characters, we learn a little something from each one. And Atwood loves to hide important details in the most minute of statements or fragments of a letter, to where you could easily miss an important clue if you are not reading carefully. I have also noticed from reading a few of Atwood’s novels that she likes to play with the idea of the unreliable narrator. Grace, when she is the narrator and also when Simon is the narrator yet talking to her, comes off so genuine and truthful. We as readers believe her, or at least want to. But then just as we start to believe her, she makes us question that. Just as Dr. Simon probably feels, never knowing if he can believe her or not. There are passages such as this, where the doctor has brought Grace a gift and in her inner monologue we hear: “I set to work willingly to tell my story, and to make it as interesting as I can, and rich in incident, as a sort of return gift to him.” Are we meant to take that as her embellishing her story, or simply divulging more of the truth than she ever has before because the good doctor has been kind to her?

This book will keep you guessing until the last and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I highly highly recommend. It is a fantastic murder mystery, a great period drama, and an in-depth character study, on both Grace and the doctor attempting to figure her out. It’s definitely one of those books that sticks with you long after you put it down.

Availability:  SMCM, USMAI and COSMOS
Review Submitted by:  Kaylie Jasinski (class of ’14)
Rating:  Must Read
Challenge: Book to TV

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