Book Review: Alias Grace
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Published by Virago
‘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.
It seems absurd that I should consider myself a Margaret Atwood fan without actually having read some of her more famous works. Alias Grace is Atwood’s ninth novel, and is a reimagining of the fate of Grace Marks, a notorious (alleged) murderess in Canada in the early 19th Century.
Atwood does what she does best in this novel, weaving together the true and fictional, adding moments of pure supernatural speculation in (with perfectly rational explanations), just to keep you on your toes. Atwood reconstructs Marks and the story of the murders with such art that you start to judge Gracie and the story as if it were all real. After all, this did happen, and therefore we too can become jury in the case.
Atwood’s art lies in writing female characters that are unerringly accurate. Gracie is no different – complex, mysterious, innocent, naïve, complicit, calculating, humble… she is a strange blend of many things. She is bewitching, but it is hard to say if she is aware of this or not. Her life has been shaped purely by the fact she is a woman, and circumstances have not been kind to her because of it. I would be intrigued to find out more about Grace Marks purely because I would be interested to see if Atwood fabricated the is-she-isn’t-she narrative or if that really was the case at the time.
The prose here is thick and syrupy. It clings and lingers. Atwood masters the art of using nature to evoke an image, or emotion, and I would argue that Alias Grace does this more than any other I have read. It lies thickly on the page, and seems to influence the action in the book without the characters even being aware of it.
For quite a big book, I sped through this at top speed. It’s a delight to read, with all my favourite components for a good story, and I found myself staying up later and later just to read a little more each time. Even the ending, which suffers more than it excels in my opinion, didn’t feel like a deflated balloon. Perhaps it helps that it is loosely based on the truth, and therefore you forgive what, ultimately, is a quiet walk in to the distance, rather than a grand parade for the finale.
It is the complexity of Gracie that holds you to the novel. The character is richly cast – balancing the line between truth and fiction without offending either party. She becomes whoever you wish her to be, without you even noticing. I tried so hard not to make judgements on it, but found myself becoming more and more convinced that I knew what really happened. The only character that I felt I missed was James McDermott, who I felt fizzled out of the story too quickly.
There are a lot of parallels drawn between The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace. The argument comes from the fact that the characters often seem to be treated the same. But I found it easier than that to separate. Alias Grace as a taste of tragedy about it – hardship, ignorance, violence – whilst The Handmaid’s Tale is a story of increasing levels of intensity. In Alias Grace, the storm has already passed, whilst The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of a storm building.
This might be quite hard to say, but Alias Grace actually became one of my favourites within the first 100 pages. It’s a novel that needs to be read over and over again, and I’m looking forward to rediscovering it over the years to come.