This week we’re featuring some of our “greatest hits” – the most popular Book-a-Day blog posts since we started this almost three years ago. Today’s is Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, reviewed by Sarah K.
Living in the South, most of us are well acquainted with Southern Gothic authors (O’Conner, Faulkner, Williams), and the conventions of the genre (the grotesque, mental illness, and family secrets). Likewise there is a subset of Canadian fiction called Southern Ontario Gothic, which deals with similar themes, usually within the context of dour propriety, social conventions, and stern Protestantism. Think frigid cold versus steamy humidity. One of the hallmarks of this genre is Alias Grace.
During 1843 in Upper Canada, Irish servant girl Grace Marks was convicted of murder for her role in the deaths of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, who was Kinnear’s lover at the time. The circumstances of the murders were never fully understood, with Marks claiming at different times that she could not remember the events of the day, and that she was possessed by the spirit of a deceased friend*. Both newspaper and personal accounts from the time were undecided if Marks was an unwitting accomplice or a diabolical mastermind. Marks received a sentence of life in prison instead of hanging because of her age and gender.
In Alias Grace, Atwood takes the facts of the case and creates a fictionalized account of Marks’ life and the mystery surrounding her guilt or innocence. The narrative alternates between Grace’s telling of her life and interviews with her alienist, Dr. Jordan, who is trying to discover Grace’s true character through a series of interviews. Like the quilts that are a reoccurring image in the novel, Atwood pieces together a story that explores both the mores of the time and the fragmented nature of history, story, and truth.
*The Toronto Public Library has a digitized version of an account of the trial, which you can read here.