on February 12, 2002
A sizable part of _Alias Grace_ is based on Susana Moodie's mid-19th century book about Grace Marks, who was convicted along with fellow servant, James McDermott, for the murders of Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper and mistress, Nancy Montgomery. Moodie met Grace Marks while the former was visiting the insane asylum and then the penitentary where Marks was later incarcerated. McDermott was hanged for his part in the murders; Marks was also condemned to die in the same manner, but her sentence was commuted to life in prison through the efforts of her attorney and of private citizens' groups who believed in her innocence. Much of Grace Marks' story is told by her, through a series of post-conviction interviews with Dr. Simon Jordan, a medical doctor who was a pioneer in the enlightened treatment of the mentally ill. Dr. Jordan is sponsored by a Reverend Verringer, who heads one of these groups.
What makes Margaret Atwood's novel so compelling is that much of what happens in _Alias Grace_ is based on true accounts of Grace Marks' life, which is seamlessly and expertly adapted by Ms. Atwood. She readily admits in her afterword "where hints and outright gaps exist in the record, I felt free to invent." Ms. Atwood is a master storyteller. Her Grace Marks is very much a three-dimensional, flesh and blood 19th century woman. The public's beliefs about her parallel many of the widely held views of females of her time. While many imagined Marks to be weak and easily led astray by a stronger and more wiley older man (Marks was only 16 at the time of the murders), others saw Marks as an evil and jealous temptress who entrapped a gullible man into the killings. Atwood also sensitively reveals the plight of many young girls of the period who suddenly become motherless and due to their changed cicumstances take positions as servants to the wealthy, or worse yet, are forced into prostitution. The alternative was pennilessness and ultimate starvation. Then there are those young women who fell prey to a "gentleman's" amorous demands, some of whom promised marriage, only to later abandon them. A truly heartbreaking episode in the book concerns Mary Whitney, a co-worker and close friend of Grace Marks, who dies as a result of a shoddily performed abortion.
By the end of the book the reader is given no definitive answer as to whether Marks was directly involved in either of the two murders. Her complexity is further revealed in the section of the book where a doctor (of the jack-of-all-trades type) puts her under hypnosis and another aspect of her personality is revealed. Grace Marks is confirmed as a woman of many sides, capable of acts of goodness, compassion--but murder? Read the very highly recommended book and then decide for yourself.
on September 10, 2001
Yes, the subject is dark: the murder of two people by (?) a teenage girl and handyman. If you liked that Japanese movie where the same story is told by different viewpoints, you'll love this. But you'll never lose track of whose 'voice' it is, or whose story it is - it's Grace's. And it's yours. You'll feel like you're right beside her as she sprinkles water on the handkerchiefs of the family's laundry to bleach them in the sun, delighting in the snap of the fresh linen on the line on a bright day, or as she struggles to remember what happened on the day of the murders. Incredibly rich writing that puts you in Grace's skin, and that of her temporary psychoanalyst. You'll find yourself rereading passages for the delight of the prose or to savor the weaving of the story. Heartbreaking but an ordinary story - after all, a casual murder for pitiful profit isn't new. Heartbreaking in its reality and the feeling of being carried on the tide of Ms. Atwood's words, knowing you're headed out to the cold, isolated heart of the Atlantic.
on May 7, 2001
Margaret Atwood's use of the quilt motif in Alias Grace serves not only a symbolic purpose, but also parallels lead character Grace Mark's revelation of her forgotten past and Atwood's structure of the novel.
In the beginning of the novel, the reader discovers that Grace has been convicted for involvement in the murders of her former employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper and mistress, Nancy Montgomery. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no recollection of the murders. Some people believe her innocent, while some people believe her evil or insane. However, as an up and coming expert in the field of Psychology, Dr. Simon Jordan is determined to uncover the truth. Throughout her sessions, Grace discusses various quilt patterns which Atwood uses as symbols. One pattern in particular Grace claims to be her favorite, "The Tree of Paradise". This quilt pattern serves as the symbol of her dreams and goals, for as long as she is a prisoner, she must only sew what she is told. Her perception of the quilt changes throughout the novel, however. Toward the beginning, Grace desires "the vine border", symbolic of the vine which grew out of Thomas Kinnear's grave, whom she secretly loved. Yet, toward the end of the novel, Grace borders the Tree of Paradise with snakes appearing as vines which represent the serpent in the Garden of Eden, much like her love for Kinnear that inspired her participation in the murders. Furthermore, as Grace serves as a dramatic character throughout the novel, her perception of good and evil is changed. To illustrate this revelation, Grace makes only one tree in the pattern, as she has now come to believe that in the Garden of Eden there were never two different trees, but only one that contained both the "Fruit of Life" and the "Fruit of Good and Evil". Therefore, this quilt pattern inspired many of the symbols implemented by Atwood throughout the novel.
In addition, Atwood uses Grace's quilt-making to parallel her remembrance of the murders and her journey toward freedom. As Jordan's sessions with the convicted murderer uncover lost memories, Grace continues to sew a quilt. In the beginning of the novel, the quilt is unfinished and after it is completed, it is to be given to the Governor's daughter. In a happy turn of events, Grace is able to sew a quilt of her own at the end of the novel. Thus, as the plot unfolds, Grace receives not only revelation of her past, paralleled by the progress of the Governor's daughter's quilt, but freedom, paralleled by her ability to sew her own quilt.
Furthermore, the quilt motif is implemented by Atwood to parallel the structure of the novel. As Grace discovers the truth behind the past, she must piece the facts together, much like the design of a quilt, in order to make something of it all. Fittingly, the titles of the chapters of the novel are named after real quilt patterns such as "Jagged Edge", "Secret Drawer", and "Pandora's Box". Thus, not only does the name of a chapter adequately describe its content, it also contributes to the quilt motif on a deeper level. These uses of the quilt motif allow both the structure of the plot and titles in the novel to parallel that of a quilt.
Just like a seamstress uses thread to create a beautiful, elaborate quilt, Atwood uses the quilt motif to symbolize the feelings of Grace and parallel her recollection in the structure of the story which comprises this beautiful, elaborate novel, Alias Grace.
on May 3, 2001
Margaret Atwood flavors Alias Grace with biblical allusions to make Grace Marks seem that much more substantial as a human being. The first introduction to Dr. Simon Jordan has Ms. Atwood adding in the Book of Job. When the doctor purposefully mentions "what Satan says to God" in the Book of Job, Grace realizes that the doctor has come to test her, and Atwood's biblical reference compares Dr. Johnson's test of Grace to one administered by God. Dr. Johnson further continues his embodiment of God by bringing her an apple which Grace clearly sees as "the apple of the Tree of Knowledge" so now Ms. Atwood has sprinkled in aspects of God's ultimate test. These indirect comparisons of Grace to Job and Eve obviously gives the reader a slightly new outlook on her. Grace's dream also has a biblical theme in it with "the pale horse that will be sent at the Day of Reckoning" and "the angels whose white robes were washed in blood , as it says in the end of the Bible". With such a morbid and overpowering biblical image of the Day of Reckoning diced into Grace's dream, Ms. Atwood makes the reader taste that Grace Marks can hardly qualify as just a normal person and that levels of complexity surround her. In the closing, Atwood again brings up the Tree of Paradise and dashes it in with the quilt motif that runs throughout the book. The quilt motif simply stands for the patchwork way in which Grace remembers things, one square at a time. This ties up with the Tree of Paradise with Grace making a quilt and "the pattern of this quilt is called the Tree of Paradise", and it serves the purpose of making the quilt seem sacrilegious and so making Grace's memory seem holy as well. While the reader may first think of Grace Marks as simply some loon because of the fact that she gets put in an insane asylum, Ms. Atwood quickly begins to develop an identity that makes her more important as a character by adding in a touch of God.
on July 30, 2001
'Alias Grace' has long been recommended to me but I only just read it because the story, a piece of historical fiction of a 1840s Canadian murderess, didn't sound particularly appealing. Well my only regret is not having read the book sooner.
The story itself, on face value, is rather ordinary. Teenage girl and apparent boyfriend both kill their employers. However the girl ('Grace') is enigmatic and, as such, her actual guilt is brought into question. All this is explained very early in the novel. But then Atwood does a wonderful job of going into the mind and soul of our poor Grace; we are intrigued, disgusted, and feel compassion for this strange creature. The author then deftly reveals, in minute stages, what the real Grace is all about. The results are unexpected.
Oh, and Ms Atwood is a brilliant writer. Her prose is superb, to the point where you wonder if she can write a bad sentence.
Bottom line: among Atwood's best. A must read.
on December 15, 2001
This novel is based on a true story. In the mid-1800s, Grace Marks, a young Canadian housemaid, was tried and jailed for the murder of her employer and another co-worker. However, it was never clear whether Grace took part in the murders or not -- she claimed to have no memory of the incident, and the only other witness was the other murderer.
Atwood takes this story and adds her own touches. Atwood picks up the story many years later, as Grace is serving out her sentence. She adds a young psychiatrist who is attempting to break through Grace's amnesia. We see the world through Grace's eyes, as she interacts with this doctor and with the others in her life, as she remembers her life.
Atwood never answers the question of whether Grace was actually a murderer. Although some find this disappointing, I think it is a fitting conclusion to the story.
Sixteen-year-old servant Grace Marks is sentenced to life in prison for the murder of her employer Thomas Kinnear. (His mistress Nancy Montgomery was also murdered). Grace’s partner in crime, James McDermott, is hung for Kinnear’s murder and opinion is mixed about whether Grace should have been hung as well. Grace maintains her innocence by repeatedly claiming that she doesn’t remember the actual crimes. Her good looks and youth play a part in triggering a series of petitions to pardon her. Meanwhile, the young and ambitious Dr. Simon Jordan spends many hours interviewing Grace in an attempt to find the truth.
Alias Grace is based on a true event that took place in 1843 in Kinnear’s Richmond Hill, Ontario home. Margaret Atwood’s extensive research incorporates real people, places, and events during that time. Grace’s detailed account of her life story is the fictional component. As Atwood explains at the end of the book, Grace was and still is an enigma.
This is probably the most literary crime novel I’ve read. In many ways, it reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird which was also centered on a crime, but which delves into prejudices, lifestyles, morals, and attitudes about the accused rather than actual crime solving. Although beautifully written, for me this is a grim book. Atwood’s depiction of the few options for women and the brutality of the day make me appreciate the time I’m living in now.
It was difficult to identify with any of the characters. Everyone, to some degree, is selfish or driven by a personal agenda. I also found the book exceedingly long. The amount of detail Grace provides in telling her story suggests that she either has an eidetic memory or she made the whole thing up, which was alluded to, just to keep Dr. Jordan entertained. The pattern or colors described in clothing, for instance, didn’t matter to me, nor did the details surrounding the doctor’s bland breakfasts. Yet, Atwood’s superb talent managed to put an uneasy edge in every paragraph as I found myself searching for clues about Grace’s innocence or guilt. Opening sections of the book with newspaper quotes, a poem, or letters was a terrific way to depict some of the attitudes about her. Lengthy or not, this is one those unforgettable books that I’ll be pondering for a long time.
on July 13, 2001
Alias Grace is stunningly well written; perhaps one of Margaret Atwood's finest works. A beautiful gem, this book is a deeply compelling and disturbing mystery that is, as many real life mysteries are, not entirely answerable. Atwood skillfully explores a historical crime; intricate details evidence her extensive research into the time period, and will be appreciated by many readers. I was stunned by Atwood's phenomenal and quite specific ability to so eloquently express and illuminate the complexities of a young woman's (possibly...) dissociative memory and psyche; this is, for me, her most impressive feat in writing Alias Grace. Atwood has provided the compelling perspectives of other characters--each one sees Grace a little differently. The questions raised by each perspective are full of promise. This book was a mystery that I read with such intensity--and I didn't want it to end! A luscious blend of Margaret Atwood's poetic style and psychological suspense. Alias Grace merits the highest praise.
on May 16, 2001
I rated this Margaret Atwood's book with 5 stars because even the parts that disappoint are still so brilliantly written that they are a joy to read. I had a problem with what I must believe to be the author's own dilemma on how to relate to what was a true event, based on an actual person when the "truth" of the matter is unknown until this day. Ms. Atwood presents several possibilities as to why her protagonist acts out of character and is apparently involved in the murder of two people, either directly or by default, none of which I found very satisfactory. I think that this was due to the sympathetic if somewhat contrary and enigmatic personality that she clothed Grace in throughout. On reflection, I suppose she had little alternative if she was going to write a readable story.
This is my second Margaret Atwood novel and like the first, The Blind Assassin, I find that her writing enchants and captivates one so completely that at the time the reader has no awareness of the enormous talent and technique involved in the seduction.
on May 6, 2001
7 May 2001
Good and Evil in Alias Grace
In the novel Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood uses similes and stream of conscience to prove her purpose that with all good, there is evil. Atwood's style is very artistic and poetic at times. "And He her bloodied hands will wash, and she'll be white as snow"(15). Here, the colors red and white, representing blood and snow, have the connotation of being evil versus pure. Atwood also uses similes and color to show death and corruption. When Grace talks about the sunrise, it is not calm, peaceful and beautiful, "but it was instead only a soiled yellowish white, like a dead fish floating in the harbour"(238). Instead of being a symbol of tranquility, the sunrise becomes a symbol of death. Through Grace's stream of conscience, Atwood achieves the same purpose of good versus evil. As Graces is making a quilt for someone, she thinks to herself what her quilt would be like. "Here is a Wild Goose Chase border, but mine would be an intertwined border, one light colour, one dark..."(98). By saying these colors are intertwined, Grace is proving Atwood's point that with all good, there is inevitably going to be evil mixed with it. Again, towards the end of the book, Grace is actually making her quilt and uses stream of conscience, going into more detail about her quilt. "On my Tree of Paradise, I intend to put a border of snakes entwined...as without a snake or two, the main part of the story would be missing"(459). Grace acknowledges that without a little bit of evil, her life would not have been what it was. Atwood shows the reader that he cannot escape evil and it is just a factor of life. However, there is also good and each must be recognized and handled accordingly if one expects to lead a balanced life.