Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood
This is probably my favorite Atwood yet, and though I’ve only read two of her many masterpieces so far, that’s saying a lot as I’ve adored both The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye.
Alias Grace is based on the true story of notorious 16-yr-old servant Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant to Canada who was served a life sentence for taking part in the murders of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, in the early 1840’s. James McDermott, the man found to be the principal instigator of the killings, was hanged. Both in reality and in Atwood’s fictionalized account, there are gaps in the story which would prove the extent of Grace’s culpability, or coercion by McDermott. Grace Marks herself claimed amnesiac episodes obscured her memory of the events, and was then considered somewhat of a medical/neurological enigma.
In Atwood’s telling of events, Dr. Simon Jordan arranges a series of interviews with Grace by which he aims to uncover the truth. Tricky business indeed. He is quite taken with Grace, surprised at her remarkable composure and directness. She was not the disheveled “lunatic” that he expected. She was not the erratic woman he’d read about. Most surprisingly, what Grace remembers of her life before prison she remembers with unusual clarity and detail. She tells him of her broken family, her trip across the sea, her work as a servant, and her friend Mary Whitney. Her lapses seem genuine to him, but he is unable to shake the feeling that she knows something she isn’t telling, and that she hasn’t told in any of the three versions of the story that she has previously allowed the public.
Are her lapses genuine? Did she do whatever she did willingly, or was she forced by McDermott? What exactly went on during the fits that, at one point, landed Grace in an asylum? Did Mary Whitney actually exist? These questions plague the reader as unbearably (yet enjoyably) as they do Dr. Jordan himself.
I don’t have any knowledge of cutting edge mid-19th-century medical theory so I can’t say for sure, but it seems like Atwood gave Dr. Jordan a pretty solid grounding for where he would probably be coming from at that time concerning methodology, and I loved the inclusion of “quack” spiritualists and their role in the story as well.
With Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood succeeds not only in writing a totally engrossing murder mystery, but also explores what must have been the common experience of European immigrants to Canada, the realm of domestic servitude, and the conflicting approaches to dealing with women criminals and the “insane” in the mid-1840’s. It’s sociology made fun, and suspenseful.
I dare you not to get positively sucked into this one!