Reading Atwood’s ‘Cat’s Eye’ reminded me how much I enjoy her writing style, her characters (especially female) and overall her stories. But, after being almost forced to face my own demons and memories, I decided to tackle something that I can reattach from a bit more. That is why I chose her historical fiction novel ‘Alias Grace’, a story inspired by infamous Grace Marks, an Irish-Canadian maid accused of double homicide. Overall, it does have all the landmarks that make Atwood who she is (an award-winning author active since 1960s) and I did thoroughly enjoy reading this story.
The story is told from the perspective of two characters, Grace Marks and Simon Jordan, a psychiatrist interested in her case as well as through letters at several places in the novel. What I found quite interesting is that Grace’s chapter are told in first person narration, while doctors are third person. I am not sure what the intention was behind this decision, but I did find myself way more interested in Grace’s story than the fictional doctor that is trying to conclude whether she is really crazy or not. This is not to say that I did not enjoy reading about his life, but simply that Grace’s honest and direct account of her tragic life left a much bigger impression on me. Grace also frequently talks about making patchwork and this symbolism can also be applied to the way Atwood wrote ‘Alias Grace’. She combined actual historical material from the trial of Grace Marks with fictional characters and a lot of speculations about what she could have actually been like. As all traces of our protagonist are lost after her pardon and move to United States, Atwood simply gives her a realistic, but overall positive ending. After all, speculative fiction is what Atwood does the best. It seems like she has an ability to adjust her writing and style to the type of book she is writing and her characters, but that always remains Atwoodian in the approach, style and attitude.
Just like with ‘Cat’s Eye’, ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ or any other of Atwood’s novels, it is the characters that truly keep you involved in the story. As I mentioned, while this is fundamentally a fictionalized account of a historical figure, another protagonist is Simon Jordan, a psychiatrist who is conducting interviews with her as a way to discover how much does she remember from the night of the murders. Through these interviews, we are given a detailed description of Grace’s quite sad but not all to unusual life given the historical circumstances and the class she belonged to. Early childhood was characterized by many siblings that she lost touch with, alcoholic and abusive father and mountain of responsibilities. Her life was marked by heartbreak, suffering and losses of many people she held dear to her and at the age of only sixteen when she was arrested, she was already seen and acted as an adult. However, Atwood did not paint her as a tragic person, but rather as a strong and self-sufficient girl. At the end, the reader is not given a definite answer to a lot of questions arisen from her narrative, particularly that of her mental state, but I dare say that at the end it is not even that significant.
On the other hand, details about Doctor Simon Jordan’s life are not chronological, but rather through snippets from his memory, dreams and letters from his mother. We learn that he is a son of a one successful mill who took an unconventional path of becoming a psychiatric in a time when there was not a lot of knowledge about mental illness. His relationship with his landlady did not seem too convincing to me, but I did not mind too much as it did not take away from the book and it did provide an interesting ending to his time with Grace. On the other hand, I feel like this kind of troubled male heroes taking an unexpected road has been told before and therefore I was not too engaged in his story. The story of many other supporting characters, especially those in the life of Grace Marks were far more interesting to me. Still, Simon Jordan is not an unsympathetic character or was he one of those characters in multiple narration story whose chapter you cannot wait to end. His ending was quite tragic and I did get upset with that, so I guess that also means he is well written.
Atwood herself noted that this is a fictionalized account based on the information that she had about the case in question. This surely allowed for a lot of creative freedom in her writing, but it is clear that a lot of research went into writing this novel and it is obvious that Atwood approached this story with respect to the memories of the people involved. Attitudes of individual people and general society towards mentally ill people shown in the novel was a reflection of the time it is set in. Similarly, a lot of treatments offered and available are as well. Atwood also made note of a lot of major historical events such as the rebellions in Canada that would have affected the lives of those living in their aftermath. I really liked this, as I do not really know a lot about 19th century Canada and it did inspire me to do a bit more research into Canadian history. However, even if you are not a big history buff, I am sure that you will still enjoy and be able to follow the story. In front of every chapter, there are snippets of history, taken from books, articles, testimonies, confessions and various other sources that helped paint the socio-historical circumstances depicted in the novel. I will not get into all the themes covered in this novel as there are plenty, each deserving of its own paper, but I will say that they are typically what Atwood is interested in. As I have stated in the previous review, I am working on a Youtube video about Atwood’s female characters and Grace Marks is definitely going to be on that list.
At the end, if you are already fan of the author, I am sure that you will love ‘Alias Grace’. If you are not, this is a great work to start from. It is quite readable and digestible, despite the topic it is dealing with. The characters are lively and realistic and a lot of attention is paid to the detail, making this a deceptively realistic historical fiction. If you do decide to read it, keep in mind that that is what this book is-fiction.
As always, if you feel like I have forgotten something very important, do let me know in the comments below.
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