Sunday, January 9, 2011

Alias Grace

by Margaret Atwood
Star Rating: 3.5 out of 4

I loooooooove unreliable narrators! They're so delightfully slippery even when they seem like they're being upfront, and they may even think they're being honest *themselves*. So amazing. So awesome. My favorite Unreliable Narrator Book is unquestionably The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, and it retains its title in my pantheon, but I'll say this: Alias Grace sure has more of them! This is evidenced by the fact that the title is Alias Grace even though "Grace" is the character's real name. It's enough to bring out cackles and gleeful handrubbing.

Alias Grace stars a convicted murderess, Grace, who's been locked up in asylums and penitentiaries for ten years for the murder of her employer and his housekeeper, and a young doctor, Simon Jordan, trying to puzzle out her story in order to advance his psychological career. The early part of the book contains letters, newspaper clippings, secondhand reports... in short, all sorts of perceptions and stories about Grace from external, and not necessarily unbiased, sources. It's like that wonderful trick at the beginning of Citizen Kane where they show a newsreel bio of Kane's life: it informs the audience and familiarizes them with the events about to come so they can free up their attention for the details. But these outside resources aren't very helpful, because opinion is sharply divided over Grace, who claims to have no memory of the murders: did she do it? Or was she forced into an accomplice role by James McDermott, who was also convicted and then hanged for his offence, and who pointed the finger at Grace to the last?

The doctor sets to work with great energy; in an amusing attempt to get Grace to recall the muders, he brings a different vegetable to each session, hoping she'll connect the veggie's growth underneath the earth with the cellar where the bodies were found. After a while, the bulk of the narrative is taken up by Grace telling Simon her life history. But it's clear that Grace is constructing her story, and it may not be entirely truthful. She has a very straightforward narrative voice that I found engaging, but is it real honesty, or the lack of emotion befitting a cold-blooded killer?

I found this narrative section is doubly effective, because in addition to being great storytelling it's a very interesting history of what life was like for a woman and maid in the mid-1800s: Grace is constantly defending herself from crude, handsy brutes on the lookout for an easy target. Other period elements faithfully represented in the book include gender relations among all classes, attitudes toward criminality and madness, the craze around spiritualism, and rudimentary psychology. At one point I was deathly afraid that Atwood was copping out with psychobabble, but she steered neatly away from the cliched multiple personalities schtick so owwie to my psych-trained brain.

Something fascinating to me was how predatory everyone in the book was. Grace is treated as an object of curiosity by everyone, even Simon, who, though very kind and interested in her story, is using her for his career's benefit. Simon, in turn, is preyed upon by his landlady (and his mother...geez), and other characters' indiscretions are abundant, notwithstanding the veneer of social respectability. Atwood does a really good job of displaying issues between the sexes at that time, and though it's clear it was harder to be female than male then, occasionally it's difficult to discern which party is predator and which prey. Especially when it comes to Grace.

Because most of the action took place ten years ago, the book unfolds slowly and seems, maybe, muted? But that seems appropriate for a narrative where so much goes on only underneath the surface, and what is said may not be the whole truth, or truth at all. On an interesting note, during the part of the story where Grace is recounting the murders, the narrative shifts from its typical pattern. The rest of Grace's narrative has been done in first-person, but here it changes to the third-person, only used previously when following the doctor's side of the story. It's a neat little trick to ensure that readers have the same distance from the story (and the truth) of the murders as Simon.

The issue of Grace's innocence or guilt is left as a matter of opinion throughout the book. There's evidence on both sides, though I will say I think Atwood tilts the balance toward one side of the scale in the closing chapters. (I won't say which.) I suppose the challenge to the reader is whether to pigeonhole her as innocent or guilty, as all the other characters try to do, or consider her as a complete person in her own right. Either way you go, it's a fascinating trip to your conclusion. This was my very first Atwood, and I'll definitely be seeking out more - maybe The Blind Assassin next?

Nitpick: when Grace is young she does a divining trick with her friend Mary that tells her the man she marries will have a name starting with "J" - so of course almost every blasted male character in the book has a "J" name. Eye roll.


  1. Atwood is one of my favorites--The Robber Bride is the one that sticks with me most (I find myself wondering what the characters are up to these days) and The Handmaid's Tale is probably her most-likely-to-make-canon work. But Blind Assassin is marvelous and a good direction to take. One warning--I found Alias Grace very different from her other work.

  2. Elizabeth, she's got a great backlist, doesn't she? This one was my very first Atwood, and I'm excited to try more! I actually decided to try it because I read The King's English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller, and the author made the same point you do about her works being very different. I'll have to try The Handmaid's Tale one of these days - I love dystopias! :)