Alias Grace is a really quite long book about the 1840s Canadian murderess Grace Marks. She’s a real person, who was jailed for the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, when she was 16. She is also thought to have murdered his lover, and housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Alias Grace is Margaret Atwood’s fictionalised version of this story, weaving the facts of the case with a constructed story of Grace and her life up to, and beyond the conviction.
I should point out that I quite enjoyed the story, but it’s definitely not really my sort of thing, and I wouldn’t have got through all 550 pages if it hadn’t been for a book club I go to. Having said that, most of the other people at book club absolutely loved it.
Margaret Atwood brilliantly builds up and creates the world that Grace inhabits. The detail about everything is rich and stunningly done. I never got bored of the descriptions it all helped put me right in Grace’s world. It has recently been made into a Netflix series and I think it will definitely be worth watching.
We meet Grace as a young girl in Ireland. Her family are poor, with lots of children and a feckless Father. They decide to begin a new life in America, and make the frankly horrendous journey over on a boat. During this trip, her Mother dies. Then Grace abandons her family after they settle in Canada, as a survival mechanism to get away from her abusive Father. From here she lives in as a house maid.
We follow Grace through several jobs, in different houses, until the terrible events that put her in jail. At this point she is still only sixteen years old. These recollections are told to a doctor, Simon Jenkins, who is studying Grace to try and make an assessment of her mind at the time of the crime. The whole book is centred around their meetings. I liked the character of Dr Jenkins, who is entirely fictionalised. While he tries to maintain a respectable, professional image to Grace, his personal life begins to break down. He’s under constant pressure from his family to settle down, and his letter exchanges with his Mother are excellent.
As one season’s crop of girls proceeds into engagement and marriage, younger ones keep sprouting up, like tulips in May. They are now so young in relation to Simon that he has trouble conversing with them; it’s like talking to a basketful of kittens.
We learn about Grace’s friend, Mary Whitney, firstly through several quotes she uses to describe things in a very funny, but coarse way. She uses Mary’s quotes to say things she would never dare, as Grace is quite prudish. Mary is slightly older than Grace, and she assumes the big sister role that Grace so desperately needs. She teaches her the ways of the job and how to get along well in life. Later, we hear Grace’s story about Mary and learn a lot more about her. She is my favourite character, she has such spark.
Mary said I might be very young, and as ignorant as an egg, but I was bright as a new penny, and the difference between stupid and ignorant was that ignorant could learn.
Grace’s story is interesting, but this book is a triumph of describing the domestic situation of 1840s Canada. There’s also a, quite Victorian, supernatural element to the story. I would recommend it of you are interested in this time, or a fan of historical fiction with a factual basis. Probably if none of those things really appeal, I would wait for the Netflix show (it looks really good! see the trailer below)