Of Woman, Guilt and Love: Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace

Atwood’s book takes the basic story as her premise, but uses a number of fictional techniques, primarily the narrative first person, but also letters, newspaper accounts, quotes and bits of poetry and song to create a tale of love, guilt, infamy and its impact on the ‘innocent’.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Alias Grace is a fiction, based on the true story of Grace Marks, who, in 1843 was tried for murdering her employer and his pregnant mistress. Atwood’s book takes the basic story as her premise, but uses a number of fictional techniques, primarily the narrative first person, but also letters, newspaper accounts, quotes and bits of poetry and song to create a tale of love, guilt, infamy and its impact on the ‘innocent’. The story itself is compelling, reading like a murder mystery which propels the reader forward in search of the truth, but our uncertainty, and indeed, Grace’s own uncertainty turns us inward toward the very nature of what Grace represents in terms of youth, innocence, guilt, longing, love and suffering. Atwood’s Grace is, in turns, lonely, intelligent, insane, pathetic, wicked, defiant, sad, long suffering, but always fascinating. The contradictions in her nature make her a believable heroine, and relationship between her and Dr Jordon provides an interesting twist which deepens the broad scope of this story.

The writing itself is very good, and, during some of Grace’s narratives, can be beautiful, for example:

Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself. Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.

At times, however, the shifting narrative, both in point of view and in fictional style, can be chaotic, distracting from the flow of the story, even as it lends an air of authenticity. This isn’t really a great book. The shifting narrative and the attempts to create a kind of verisimilitude of true events leave the reader too detached to lose themselves, and the story, despite the chaotic narrative, doesn’t really illuminate the big issues like love, innocence and life which it touches on. It does touch on these issues though, and the excellent characterisation of Grace and the very detailed accounts of the household, fabrics, prisons and general living conditions of the times make it a very enjoyable read.

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