Alias Grace is my first Margaret Atwood novel, and I liked it well enough, I suppose. Sigh. I want to fall in love with novels, but these days it doesn’t happen very often. I did enjoy reading the novel, though; it’s long, but it read quickly, and I got caught up in the story. It dealt with interesting ideas and had some good characters, and it was well-written. I liked the variety of voices it contained, including letters from several different characters. It was all good … just not something I fell in love with. I will read more Atwood, though, at least one more, because I want to read The Handmaid’s Tale. That seems like a book I should read.
Alias Grace is a historical novel, set in Canada in the mid-nineteenth century, and it tells the story of Grace, a woman convicted of murder and serving time in prison, although she is let out during the day to work as a maid, where people stare at her in fascination. Her crime was murdering her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, who is also his mistress. She was believed to have worked in tandem with James McDermott to commit the murders, but he was hanged while there was enough doubt about Grace’s case to lead to a prison sentence.
But Simon Jordan, a young doctor out to prove himself in the as-yet-unidentified field of psychology, decides that Grace is worthy of investigation, and might just be the case to make his reputation. He is hired by some charitable church types to investigate her case and see if he can prove her innocence. So he spends many afternoons interviewing Grace, and her story as she tells it makes up the bulk of the narrative.
All this gives Atwood the chance to explore the beginnings of psychology, which she does quite well with dream sequences and free association exercises and attempts to understand rather than just condemn criminality. She also writes about the nineteenth-century fascination with spiritualism and little-understood mental phenomena: some of her characters participate in seances and some are eager to hypnotize Grace to see if they can discover her guilt or innocence through her unconscious self.
Atwood keeps the narrative structure varied; sometimes Grace tells the story in the first person, sometimes we follow Simon Jordan in a close third person, and at other times we get letters that Simon, his mother, and various other characters write. All these work together to give depth to the story, especially in the way the various perspectives clash and contradict one another. We get the letters Simon writes to his mother, which do not tell her much of what he is actually experiencing, and, more significantly, we get Simon’s and Grace’s very different accounts of their conversations as Simon tries to win her trust, and Grace resists him.
Atwood does a good job of keeping the tension up throughout the book. Grace is an enigma; even though we get her first-person narrative of the murder story, there is much about what happened that she doesn’t understand — that, or she isn’t telling us what really happened. We have no idea, really, how reliable she is. But her story of working as a maid, trying to make her way through a world very inhospitable to women unprotected as she is by a father or a husband, is interesting even if we don’t know to what extent we should trust her.
So there is a lot to enjoy and admire here. I was just hoping to love it more than I did. Other Atwood fans, is this one of her better ones, do you think?