Book reviews

I included Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood in my Classics Club book list as a bit of a cheat since I’m working my way through her books anyway, but thought I might as well tick another book off my list.

Alias Grace is unlike any of the stories I’ve already read by this author. Several have been dystopian, while another two were so real I suspect they were based on the author’s own life experiences. Alias Grace is a fictional account of an actual woman who was convicted of two murders in Canada in 1843. The known facts of the case were used by the author to anchor her fictional story.

Grace Marks was a servant at a remote farm when she and James McDermott were found guilty of murdering their employer, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Grace was only 16 years old at the time of the murders. The pair were caught soon after fleeing to the USA and returned to Canada to face trail for the crimes. McDermott was hanged and Grace was sentenced to life in prison.

When the story began, Grace had been a prisoner for many years. By day, she worked as a servant in the prison Governor’s home, returning each night to the prison. The Governor’s wife and her guests were fascinated by Grace, and were alternately thrilled or horrified by having her in their midst. Grace’s beauty and self-possession added to their intrigue.

A doctor researching criminal behaviour came to Canada specifically to interview Grace. He sat with Grace in the Governor’s home as she sewed and tried unsuccessfully for some time to prompt her to talk about the actual murders, which she told him she had forgotten about. Eventually the doctor asked Grace to tell him about her childhood, which she did, starting with her abusive, drunkard father, her constantly pregnant mother and their battle with poverty and too many children. Grace told him her of her mother’s death on the ship to America from Ireland, how she became a servant and eventually lost touch with her father, younger brothers and sisters as she moved from situation to situation.

The doctor’s own somewhat messy personal life also became part of the story. Newspaper accounts of the crime, letters between the characters and poems were also used to tell the story.

Grace is a fascinating character and this is an intriguing story, which has left me with plenty of things to think about.

Alias Grace was book twelve in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2013.

If we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged.

Alias Grace is broken up into chapters named for quilts, such as Ducks and Geese and Pandora’s Box, with pictures of the quilt patterns. I particularly enjoyed making the connection between the contents of each chapter and the name of the quilt patterns.

Comments on: "Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood" (10)

  1. I loved Alias Grace. I’ve read around 6 or 7 Atwoods, and this is one of my top three of hers, the other two being The handmaid’s tale and The blind assassin. It also made me equate her with Peter Carey, in that both of them, as you’ve said here, have mixed up genres quite a bit in their oeuvre, so that you never quite know what’s next. As well as the dystopian and the more contemporary tales, she has also written thriller-crime. My second book of hers was Bodily harm.

    Funnily I haven’t read any of her recent dystopian novels. I’m sure I’ll like them but something puts me off, and I’m not sure I’ll read the new one, unless my reading group chooses it, of course, which they very well might do! My last Atwood was The Penelopiad.

    • I’ve got The Blind Assassin on my list, haven’t heard of The Penelopiad but am sure to get to it eventually. I’ve enjoyed her dystopian novels and am particularly in awe of how fearless her writing is. The Heart Goes Last made my jaw drop several times. Reading groups are great at getting you to read books you would never have chosen on your own although that isn’t always a good thing!

      • I love reading groups for that reason, usually! I like them when my group schedules a book I really want to read but have found it hard to fit into my schedule, but I love it when I discover something new that I hadn’t heard of or hadn’t considered reading, too.

  2. I saw this serialised on tv, but from your review I think I need to read it! I come and go with Atwood, some I’ve loved and others have left me cold, but never because of the writing (fearless is a good word to describe it) I haven’t read The Heart Goes Last sounds like that should be on my list too!

    • Was the tv series good?
      I agree, some of the stories have left me cold too, but her writing is always exceptional. The plot of The Heart Goes Last has stuck in my head, I found it quite disturbing. The Handmaid’s Tale was the same, really disturbing and the plot has stayed in my head for years.

  3. the tv series was as you describe but it was quite plodding so it probably missed a lot of the nuance (?) of the book. I think it was on Netflix. It’ll be interesting to compare.

  4. please don’t hold your breath!

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