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Alias Grace [Paperback]

Margaret Atwood
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (123 customer reviews)
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Product Description

From Amazon

In 1843, a 16-year-old Canadian housemaid named Grace Marks was tried for the murder of her employer and his mistress. The sensationalistic trial made headlines throughout the world, and the jury delivered a guilty verdict. Yet opinion remained fiercely divided about Marks--was she a spurned woman who had taken out her rage on two innocent victims, or was she an unwilling victim herself, caught up in a crime she was too young to understand? Such doubts persuaded the judges to commute her sentence to life imprisonment, and Marks spent the next 30 years in an assortment of jails and asylums, where she was often exhibited as a star attraction. In Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood reconstructs Marks's story in fictional form. Her portraits of 19th-century prison and asylum life are chilling in their detail. The author also introduces Dr. Simon Jordan, who listens to the prisoner's tale with a mixture of sympathy and disbelief. In his effort to uncover the truth, Jordan uses the tools of the then rudimentary science of psychology. But the last word belongs to the book's narrator--Grace herself. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Intrigued by contemporary reports of a sensational murder trial in 1843 Canada, Atwood has drawn a compelling portrait of what might have been. Her protagonist, the real life Grace Marks, is an enigma. Convicted at age 16 of the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper and lover, Nancy Montgomery, Grace escaped the gallows when her sentence was commuted to life in prison, but she also spent some years in an insane asylum after an emotional breakdown. Because she gave three different accounts of the killings, and because she was accused of being the sole perpetrator by the man who was hanged for the crime, Grace's life and mind are fertile territory for Atwood. Adapting her style to the period she describes, she has written a typical Victorian novel, leisurely in exposition, copiously detailed and crowded with subtly drawn characters who speak the embroidered, pietistic language of the time. She has created a probing psychological portrait of a working-class woman victimized by society because of her poverty, and victimized again by the judicial and prison systems. The narrative gains texture and tension from the dynamic between Grace and an interlocutor, earnest young bachelor Dr. Simon Jordan, who is investigating the causes of lunacy with plans to establish his own, more enlightened institution. Jordan is hoping to awaken Grace's suppressed memories of the day of the murder, but Grace, though uneducated, is far wilier than Jordan, whom she tells only what she wishes to confess. He, on the other hand, is handicapped by his compassion, which makes him the victim of the wiles of other women, too?his passionate, desperate landlady, and the virginal but predatory daughter of the prison governor. These encounters give Atwood the chance to describe the war between the sexes with her usual wit. Although the narrative holds several big surprises, the central question?Was Grace dupe and victim or seductress and instigator of the bloody crime??is left tantalizingly ambiguous. Major ad/promo; author tour.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From School Library Journal

YA. In 1843, at the age of 16, Grace Marks, a recent Irish emigre to Canada, was sentenced to life in prison as an accomplice in the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. The teen confessed to the crime early and later claimed no memory of the events. She was arrested in upstate New York, having run from her employer's house with the handyman, who was hanged for the crimes. Atwood became interested in the case, a true story, and added the involvement of Dr. Simon Jordan. This novel is set 16 years after the crime took place when Jordan, who is interested in the fledgling science of psychology, is recruited by a local Methodist minister intent on proving Grace's innocence to examine her and determine the "truth." Readers are made privy to innumerable details of daily life in that time and place. The concept is intriguing, and while YAs never actually learn the truth, they certainly become involved in Grace's history as well as Simon's bumbling attempts at independence from a domineering mother. Atwood may be playing a game with her readers, but it is one in which many will willingly participate for the fun and mystery while learning about life in colonial Canada. While long, this story reads quickly and all of the characters are compelling, different, and well developed.?Susan H. Woodcock, Kings Park Library, Burke, VA
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

Atwood steps back to the 1840s to portray a young woman accused of a vicious double murder and the doctor who probes her psyche to try to determine whether she is guilty or innocent.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Audio Cassette edition.

From Booklist

Since she was a child, Atwood has been fascinated by the true story of Grace Marks, a 16-year-old, nineteenth-century Canadian domestic worker convicted of the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear. Now, in Atwood's first historical novel and perhaps her strongest work to date, she tells us why. Grace's enduringly enigmatic tale embodies Atwood's signature theme--the myriad ironies and injustices of women's lives--and, as she portrays a fictionalized Grace in prose as elegant as Eliot's or Wharton's, she also gleefully exposes all the hypocrisy, sexism, ignorance, and fear embedded in Victorian culture. We learn Grace's story, or, at least, Grace's carefully modulated version of it, during the course of her sessions with a naive American "doctor of the mind" named Simon Jordan. Grace claims to have no memory of the murder of Kinnear, or of Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper and lover, and denies having had sexual relations with James McDermott, who was hung for his part in the crime. When Jordan arrives, determined to help her regain her memory and, hopefully, clear her name, she has already served 15 years of a life sentence, some in an asylum. Atwood uses their conversations, which are electric with suppressed desire and suspense, as a forum for considering everything from the class system to treatment of the insane, prostitution, spiritualism, and sensationalized journalism. Atwood's humor has never been slier, her command of complex material more adept, her eroticism franker, or her descriptive passages more lyrical. This is a stupendous performance and bound to win Atwood even greater acclaim. Donna Seaman --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Kirkus Reviews

A fascinating elaboration--and somewhat of a departure for Atwood (The Robber Bride, 1993, etc.)--of the life of Grace Marks, one of Canada's more infamous killers. As notorious as our own Lizzy Borden, Grace Marks was barely 16 when she and James McDermott were arrested in 1843 for the brutal murder of their employer Thomas Kinnear and his pregnant mistress/housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. The trial was a titillating sensation; McDermott was hanged, and Grace was given the dubious mercy of life imprisonment. Some felt her an innocent dupe, others thought her a cold-blooded murderer; the truth remains elusive. Atwood reimagines Grace's story, and with delicate skill all but replaces history with her chronicle of events. Anchoring the narrative is the arrival of Dr. Simon Jordan, who has come to investigate the sanity of Grace after some 16 years of incarceration. A convert to the new field of psychiatry, Jordan is hoping to help Grace recover her memory of the murders, which she claims no recollection of. He begins by asking for her life story. Grace tells him of her first commission as a laundry maid in a grand house, and of her dear friend Mary, dead at 16 from a botched abortion. On she goes until she calmly relates the events that led up to the murders, and her attempted escape with McDermott afterward. Hypnotism finally ``restores'' her memory (or is Grace misleading Jordan?), with results that are both shocking and ambiguous. Employing a variety of narratives--Grace's own, Dr. Jordan's, letters, newspaper accounts from the time, poems from the period, and the published confessions of the accused--a complex story is pieced together. The image of the patchwork quilt, used repeatedly in the novel, is a fitting metaphor for the multiplicity of truths that Grace exemplifies. Through characteristically elegant prose and a mix of narrative techniques, Atwood not only crafts an eerie, unsettling tale of murder and obsession, but also a stunning portrait of the lives of women in another time. (Author tour) -- Copyright ©1996, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

A sensuous, perplexing book, at once sinister and dignified, grubby and gorgeous, panoramic yet specific...I don't think I have ever been so thrilled...This, surely is as far as a novel can go Julie Myerson, INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY Brilliant...Atwood's prose is searching. So intimate it seems to be written on the skin Hilary Mantel Margaret Atwood is to be congratulated Anita Brookner, SPECTATOR The outstanding novelist of our age Peter Kemp, SUNDAY TIMES

From the Publisher

"Brilliantly realized, intellectually provocative and maddeningly suspenseful."
-Maclean's

"Written by a great novelist whose capacity to surprise, to challenge and to infuse her fictions with the surge and pulse of existence never fails."
-The Times --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From the Back Cover

“Brilliantly realized, intellectually provocative and maddeningly suspenseful.”
Macleans

“Atwood confirms her status as the outstanding novelist of our age.”
Sunday Times (U.K.)

“Atwood not only crafts an eerie, unsettling tale of murder and obsession, but also a stunning portrait of the lives of women in another time.”
Kirkus Reviews

“A masterpiece…perhaps Atwood’s best, most important novel to date.”
Ottawa Citizen

“A great book of such wit, wisdom and dazzling storytelling that it leaves me in no doubt that Atwood is the most outstanding novelist currently writing in English.”
Sydney Morning Herald

“Atwood’s humor has never been slyer, her command of complex material more adept, her eroticism franker.…This is a stupendous performance. . . .”
Booklist

“[Atwood] has surpassed herself, writing with a glittering, singing intensity.…”
New York Review of Books

“Stunning.…Atwood is in perfect control. And her fusion of real events and fiction is as contemporary as it is ingenious.”
Calgary Herald

“A rare and splendid novel that pulls you in and won’t let go.…”
Washington Post Book World

“Atwood’s imaginative control of her period flows, irresistible and superb.…[She] has pushed the art to its extremes and the result is devastating. This, surely, is as far as a novel can go.”
Independent on Sunday (U.K.)

“Seductive, beautifully articulated.…Brilliantly conceived and executed.…”
San Francisco Chronicle

“Astonishing.…”
Financial Post

“A sublime read.…As satisfying as the best whodunit.”
London Free Press

“An absorbing and brilliantly told story.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review) --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

About the Author

Margaret Atwood is Canada's most eminent novelist and poet. She has won many awards including the SUNDAY TIMES Author of the Year Award and she has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

1859.

I am sitting on the purple velvet settee in the Governor's parlour, the Governor's wife's parlour; it has always been the Governor's wife's parlour although it is not always the same wife, as they change them around according to the politics. I have my hands folded in my lap the proper way although I have no gloves. The gloves I would wish to have would be smooth and white, and would be without a wrinkle.

I am often in this parlour, clearing away the tea things and dusting the small tables and the long mirror with the frame of grapes and leaves around its and the pianoforte; and the tall clock that came from Europe, with the orange-gold sun and the silver moon, that go in and out according to the time of day and the week of the month. I like the clock best of anything in the parlour, although it measures time and I have too much of that on my hands already.

But I have never sat down on the settee before, as it is for the guests. Mrs. Alderman Parkinson said a lady must never sit in a chair a gentleman has just vacated, though she would not say why; but Mary Whitney said, Because, you silly goose, it's still warm from his bum; which was a coarse thing to say. So I cannot sit here without thinking of the ladylike bums that have sat on this very settee, all delicate and white, like wobbly softboiled eggs.

The visitors wear afternoon dresses with rows of buttons up their fronts, and stiff wire crinolines beneath. It's a wonder they can sit down at all, and when they walk, nothing touches their legs under the billowing skirts, except their shifts and stockings. They are like swans, drifting along on unseen feet; or else like the jellyfish in the waters of the rocky harbour near our house, when I was little, before I ever made the long sad journey across the ocean. They were bell-shaped and ruffled, gracefully waving and lovely under the sea; but if they washed up on the beach and dried out in the sun there was nothing left of them. And that is what the ladies are like: mostly water.

There were no wire crinolines when I was first brought here. They were horsehair then, as the wire ones were not thought of. I have looked at them hanging in the wardrobes, when I go in to tidy and empty the slops. They are like birdcages; but what is being caged in? Legs, the legs of ladies; legs penned in so they cannot get out and go rubbing up against the gentlemen's trousers. The Governor's wife never says legs, although the newspapers said legs when they were talking about Nancy, with her dead legs sticking out from under the washtub.

It isn't only the jellyfish ladies that come. On Tuesdays we have the Woman Question, and the emancipation of this or that, with reform-minded persons of both sexes; and on Thursdays the Spiritualist Circle, for tea and conversing with the dead, which is a comfort to the Governor's wife because of her departed infant son. But mainly it is the ladies. They sit sipping from the thin cups, and the Governor's wife rings a little china bell. She does not like being the Governor's wife, she would prefer the Governor to be the governor of something other than a prison. The Governor had good enough friends to get him made the Governor, but not for anything else.

So here she is, and she must make the most of her social position and accomplishments, and although an object of fear, like a spider, and of charity as well, I am also one of the accomplishments. I come into the room and curtsy and move about, mouth straight, head bent, and I pick up the cups or set them down, depending; and they stare without appearing to, out from under their bonnets.

The reason they want to see me is that I am a celebrated murderess. Or that is what has been written down. When I first saw it I was surprised because they say Celebrated Singer and Celebrated Poetess and Celebrated Spiritualist and Celebrated Actress, but what is there to celebrate about murder? All the same, Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word—musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself. Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.

Murderer is merely brutal. It's like a hammer, or a lump of metal. I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices.

Sometimes when I am dusting the mirror with the grapes I look at myself in it, although I know it is vanity. In the afternoon light of the parlour my skin is a pale mauve, like a faded bruise, and my teeth are greenish. I think of all the things that have been written about me—that I am an inhuman female demon, that I am an innocent victim of a blackguard forced against my will and in danger of my own life, that I was too ignorant to know how to act and that to hang me would be judicial murder, that I am fond of animals, that I am very handsome with a brilliant complexion, that I have blue eyes, that I have green eyes, that I have auburn and also brown hair, that I am tall and also not above the average height, that I am well and decently dressed, that I robbed a dead woman to appear so, that I am brisk and smart about my work, that I am of a sullen disposition with a quarrelsome temper, that I have the appearance of a person rather above my humble station, that I am a good girl with a pliable nature and no harm is told of me, that I am cunning and devious, that I am soft in the head and little better than an idiot. And I wonder, how can I be all of these different things at once?

It was my own lawyer, Mr. Kenneth MacKenzie, Esq., who told them I was next door to an idiot. I was angry with him over that, but he said it was by far my best chance and I should not appear to be too intelligent. He said he would plead my case to the utmost of his ability, because whatever the truth of the matter I was little more than a child at the time, and he supposed it came down to free will and whether or not one held with it. He was a kind gentleman although I could not make head nor tail of much of what he said, but it must have been good pleading. The newspapers wrote that he performed heroically against overwhelming odds. Though I don't know why they called it pleading, as he was not pleading but trying to make all of the witnesses appear immoral or malicious, or else mistaken.

I wonder if he ever believed a word I said.


When I have gone out of the room with the tray, the ladies look at the Governor's wife's scrapbook. Oh imagine, I feel quite faint, they say, and You let that woman walk around loose in your house, you must have nerves of iron, my own would never stand it. Oh well one must get used to such things in our situation, we are virtually prisoners ourselves you know, although one must feel pity for these poor benighted creatures, and after all she was trained as a servant, and it's as well to keep them employed, she is a wonderful seamstress, quite deft and accomplished, she is a great help in that way especially with the girls' frocks, she has an eye for trimmings, and under happier circumstances she could have made an excellent milliner's assistant.

Although naturally she can be here only during the day, I would not have her in the house at night. You are aware that she has spent time in the Lunatic Asylum in Toronto, seven or eight years ago it was, and although she appears to be perfectly recovered you never know when they may get carried away again, sometimes she talks to herself and sings out loud in a most peculiar manner. One cannot take chances, the keepers conduct her back in the evenings and lock her up properly, otherwise I wouldn't be able to sleep a wink. Oh I don't blame you, there is only so far one can go in Christian charity, a leopard cannot change its spots and no one could say you have not done your duty and shown a proper feeling.

The Governor's wife's scrapbook is kept on the round table with the silk shawl covering it, branches like vines intertwined, with flowers and red fruit and blue birds, it is really one large tree and if you stare at it long enough the vines begin to twist as if a wind is blowing them. It was sent from India by her eldest daughter who is married to a missionary, which is not a thing I would care to do myself. You would be sure to die early, if not from the rioting natives as at Cawnpore with horrid outrages committed on the persons of respectable gentlewomen, and a mercy they were all slaughtered and put out of their misery, for only think of the shame; then from the malaria, which turns you entirely yellow, and you expire in raving fits; in any case before you could turn around, there you would be, buried under a palm tree in a foreign clime. I have seen pictures of them in the book of Eastern engravings the Governor's wife takes out when she wishes to shed a tear.

On the same round table is the stack of Godey's Ladies' Books with the fashions that come up from the States, and also the Keepsake Albums of the two younger daughters. Miss Lydia tells me I am a romantic figure; but then the two of them are so young they hardly know what they are saying. Sometimes they pry and tease; they say, Grace, why don't you ever smile or laugh, we never see you smiling, and I say I suppose Miss I have gotten out of the way of it. My face won't bend in that direction any more. But if I laughed out loud I might not be able to stop; and also it would spoil their romantic notion of me. Romantic people are not supposed to laugh, I know that much from looking at the pictures.

The daughters put all kinds of things into their albums, little scraps of cloth from their dresses, little snippets of ribbon, pictures cut from magazines—the Ruins of Ancient Rome, the Picturesque Monasteries of the French Alps, Old London Bridge, Niagara Falls in summer and in winter, which is a thing I would like to see as all say it is very impressive, and portraits of Lady This and Lord That from England. And their friends write things in their graceful handwriting, To Dearest Lydia from your Eternal Friend, Clara Richards; To... --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

From AudioFile

In this story set in nineteenth-century Canada, 16-year-old house servant Grace Marks is accused of murdering her mistress and master. Listeners witness the unfolding of the following 30 years: Grace's own musings, as well as the struggles of those who attempt to prove her innocence. Elizabeth McGovern breathes life into Atwood's creation with such masterful and insightful portrayals as the soft-spoken Grace; her saucy friend, Mary Whitney; and Dr. Jordan, whose youthful vitality occasionally seeps out from under his scholarly cloak. Without exaggeration, ALIAS GRACE juxtaposes the thrill of mystery with the deliciously tangible detail and animate dialogue Atwood fans have come to admire and expect. R.A.P. An AUDIOFILE Earphones Award winner. (c)AudioFile, Portland, Maine --This text refers to the Audio Cassette edition.
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