Alias Grace, By Margaret Atwood is a book I have returned to ten years after first reading it for my A-Level in English Literature. I was blessed with a teacher at the time, who allowed us to explore the novel and highlight parts that appealed to and inspired us, simply because they did, and not because they were in tune with any particular syllabus requirements. Perhaps that is the reason why I, unlike many others, have been able to recall a text I have had to study with fondness. A few thought-provoking lines and strong images had remained in my mind over the years and after spotting it still on the shelf of my childhood bedroom, I determined to visit the novel again.
It was better the second-time round for many reasons, the main one being that Atwood’s leisurely pace and attention to detail produce a narrative that is so rich, it needs to be savoured and appreciated. The novel is based on the largely untold and unknown story of Grace Marks, a Victorian girl, who at the age of sixteen was accused of the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery in Canada. After having her sentence commuted to life imprisonment, rather than death, she spends her days in a penitentiary, and is visited by an idealistic young doctor, Simon Jordan, who hopes to awaken the memories he believes Grace has been unconsciously suppressing of the day of the murder. More importantly, he hopes that they will reveal just how involved she was. Through the conversations that pass between the two characters, we learn about Grace’s early life in Ireland, the treacherous voyage she suffered over to Canada, and her years spent in service before the fateful day. The characters are fully dimensional and layered to keep readers guessing and changing their minds about them. Grace is, in one sense, incredibly truthful about the realities of lower class Victorian life, and in another, she is wholly deceptive and we, along with Simon Jordan are never sure about how honest she is being with her audience.
This is a consuming and emotional read that has the power to completely take you in. As well as having the obvious appeal of historical fiction, it is also a very thought provoking study of psychology. But be warned that its candid subject matter means that it is an entirely different form the escapism of say, a Jane Austen novel.