Book Review: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

alias grace cover

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood is the first book in my personal challenge to read and review 12 books in 12 months. You can see the rules I’m following for this challenge in my previous post, here.

In this review series, I will do my best to avoid major spoilers. I personally define a spoiler as anything giving away a major plot point that you couldn’t find out just by reading a book’s cover or reading some other ad for the book.  I will, however, tell you what kind of content to expect (romance, adventure, action, gore, sex, etc.) I know I like to see that kind of information when I’m looking for something new to read.

A brief overview of the book:

Genre: historical fiction.

Pacing: moderate, with some quick parts.

Content: There is sex in this book. Not erotica-novel sex, but sex that genuinely plays an important role in the plot and character development.

Alias Grace is a fictional story about a real woman named Grace Marks, who worked for a time as a housemaid in Canada during the 1840s. Grace was tried for murder, and found guilty of killing her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper. The novel includes real events from the title character’s life, including the infamous murders. Atwood attempts to keep true to the real events when the information is available. When that is not possible, Atwood creates her own narrative to explain many of the details that are still unclear in this mysterious case. What we’re left with is a detail-rich novel about a character who may–or may not–know the truth about what happened on that day.

I have a lot to say about this novel, but first I need to tell you a little about its structure and how brilliantly that structure gets the story across. This is a largely retrospective novel, told in a few different perspectives, with Grace as the primary narrator (and the only one in 1st person). When the story begins, Grace is incarcerated, but serving a sentence that requires her to work in the governor’s house nearby, which was common then. While there, a doctor who has taken interest in her case begins visiting in the hopes of getting her story, and somehow helping her piece together the hours she continues to claim are missing from her memory: vital hours during which she supposedly committed her crime. The story goes back and forth between the scenes of the doctor’s visits, and Grace’s memories of her childhood through the time leading up to the murders.  Every so often between these, there are sections from the doctor’s perspective, as well as letters he is sending and receiving as he investigates her case. This allows the reader to see a character arc for Grace from her own perspective, but also get the chance to view Grace from an outside point of view.

The book is broken up into many chapters, each of which begins with some quotes from the time period, most of which are related to Grace’s case. Here, we see snippets of her confession and other people’s accounts of the murders, or of her supposed accomplice’s statements. Sometimes, instead of these, we see quotes from important writers from the time, giving the reader a little window into the culture back then. All of this helps ground the book in fact. Each chapter is also titled with a quilting pattern. Without spoilers, all I can say is that there is a lot of quilt symbolism in this novel.

The pacing of this book is what I’d consider moderate. It’s no Gone Girl, which I enjoyed a lot as well, but it’s a much quicker read than something like The Lord of the Rings, which I find a bit too slow despite the fantasy/adventure aspects of the books, to give you a sense of my personal taste when it comes to pacing. Atwood does spend a fair amount of time on description to put the reader in the scene, but it doesn’t feel extraneous because she’s world building, especially with the descriptions of Grace’s everyday tasks as a servant. Her tasks establish the normal routine that is disrupted by the events of her life, and I think these descriptions are tactfully placed. Grace had a very eventful life prior to her incarceration–even prior to the murders themselves–so even though she tells the story in retrospect, I didn’t feel it dragging at any point.

There are a couple of moments in the story where it gets a little weird. Not in a gross way. More in a what-just-happened-I-thought-this-wasn’t-a-fantasy-novel way. I wasn’t as much of a fan of these moments, but not because I dislike fantasy. More because I felt like Atwood was trying to trick me, and it felt a little heavy handed there. To be fair though, there is a significant build up to these moments with some of Grace’s memories, so while I found it a bit jarring as a reader, it does fit to the overall story arch, and the ending does settle back to the realm of realistic historical fiction.

Having said that, I really enjoyed this novel, and I definitely recommend it. I’m a huge fan of historical fiction novels in which the author has made every attempt to be factual, but has also chosen a historical event or time period for which there is plenty of room for fictionalization. This story is definitely one of those. It also explores a lot of themes that I think still resonate well today.

It had been a few years since my fist read of this book, but the second time around I couldn’t help but notice just how much gender plays a role in this story. The particularly gender-unequal society of Grace’s time affects her life in nearly every major event, though not always in an overt way. We get to see a world in which the genders are treated very differently, and how that affects the characters’ ability to have healthy relationships with each other across genders. If you have an interest in reading more stories exploring gender roles and how they affect people’s lives, you may enjoy this book.

Have any book recommendations? Maybe you’ve read this book too and have thoughts to share! Feel free to leave a comment below.

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