I always try to read a mixture of new releases and backlist titles and I have been meaning to read more of Margaret Atwood’s work for a while. And from her extensive works a friend recommended reading Alias Grace, and on reading the premise it was a story which intrigued me, and one that was different from previous Atwood books I have read.
Originally published in 1996, Alias Grace is a work of historical fiction, based on the true story of one of the most notorious Canadian women of the 1840’s. Grace Marks was just sixteen years old when she was convicted of murder, in a case that shocked the country, and beyond, which was reported overseas with the circumstances surrounding the murders capturing the attention of journalists who were drawn to this story. The involvement of a young, beautiful woman was one draw, and then there was the scandal surrounding the murdered gentlemen, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. From the start this was a story that grabbed my attention, and I was intrigued to uncover more about the case. Through Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood has created a fascinating and compelling historical story which gives a voice to an enigmatic woman, giving the reader a glimpse into what her life may have been like, and whether she could be responsible for such a crime.
Grace Marks is a woman who has been written through history but accounts of her character and her involvement in the murders vary widely. Atwood has stuck to the facts available and there are extracts from historical documents throughout which help build up a picture of events and the sense of time and place. And Atwood’s writing is rich in detail and evocative of the era which made for a compelling and atmospheric read with authentic characters. At over five hundred pages long this is quite a substantial read but the more I read the more immersed I became in this world and I found this depiction of Grace to be fascinating, as she recounts events to Dr. Jordan, who assesses Grace’s state of mind as she resides in a Toronto asylum. Through her depiction of Grace Marks, Atwood raises some interesting points about the attitude towards women and sexuality through history. I was interested to read that Marks was condemned to death alongside James McDermott, but due to divided public opinion and the efforts of her lawyer she was spared the death penalty and was imprisoned instead. The reason being that she was so young and pretty, with people believing she was the weaker sex, and would surely not be capable of causing such harm. Through this novel we are presented with an account in which these attitudes are explored, as we try to uncover the truth about Grace Marks, as we revisit the crime, and get a glimpse into Grace’s memories, as her story unfolds in all its complexity.
It took me a little while to get into Alias Grace, but by the end I was gripped by this richly detailed, sinister tale, a tale in which historical fact and fiction are woven together in this depiction of a notorious crime, and the mystery surrounding the young woman at its heart.