Alias Grace is a work of fiction, but is based upon real events. In Canada in 1843, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, were murdered. Grace Marks and James McDermott, servants in the Kinnear household, were found guilty of the murders, although Marks’ role in the events was never satisfactorily ascertained, and it is unclear whether she was directly involved in the murders or was merely an unwilling accessory to the events. Following the trial, McDermott was hanged and Marks was imprisoned for life, although she was pardoned some 30 years later. At the time of murders, Marks was just 16 years old.
Margaret Atwood states in the afterword that of Alias Grace that she has not changed any known facts in writing her novel, but that where gaps existed she constructed a fictional narrative choosing “the most likely possibility, while accommodating all possibilities where possible.”. Her novel is set in 1859 – 16 years after the murders took place, and sees Marks, still imprisoned, telling her version of the events to Dr Simon Jordan – a psychologist who has been hired to establish her level of participation in the events in order to support an appeal to have her released. Her account begins with her family’s life in Ireland and their emigration to Canada, and how she eventually found employment in the Kinnear household and the subsequent events.
I enjoyed Alias Grace. It’s a compelling narrative, and evokes sympathy at Marks’ circumstances, despite the fact that she may have murdered two people. Atwood deliberately chose not to use speech marks throughout the book, and so it is unclear as to whether Grace is speaking out loud or merely thinking as she tells her story. At several points she shares more information with the reader than she does with Dr Jordan, and this adds to the uncertainty as to whether her narrative should be believed.
One thing that struck me was the way in which the press, and by extension the general public, may make their judgements based upon their expectations and what makes a sensational story. They didn’t seem to care if Marks had been coerced or not, as the idea of a femme fatale using her sexual wiles to make McDermott do her bidding (as was supposed at the time) is so much more shocking, particularly in the mid-nineteenth century. In this regard, the novel could have as easily been set in current times as in the past.
If I have one criticism of Alias Grace, it’s that the ending felt quite abrupt. Given that the novel spans some 500+ pages, the denouement felt rushed. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but given the time invested up to that point, I felt almost cheated at the end. That’s not to say that the conclusion is unsatisfactory, however, just that it was over too quickly. Or maybe I just didn’t want the story to end.
I’m a big fan of Margaret Atwood, and Alias Grace has done nothing other than to cement her position as one of my favourite authors.