Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is definitely one of the top on my list of favorite authors. The main reason for this is Handmaid's Tale, but I always find her books to be very compelling and enjoyable reads. In Alias Grace Atwood brings a story with no right answers, one that forces the reader to consider the role of women and servants in the 1800's.
The book takes place over decades, with the main story happening over one year. Grace is a "famous murderess" who has been in prison since her sentence was commuted from hanging to life in prison. But there are those who believe that she is innocent, that she was used by her accomplice, and took no part in the murders. It is at their urging that a doctor, a specialist in mental illness, comes to speak with her. Dr. Jordan's reasons for working with Grace are more selfish, as he hopes to publish a paper based on his findings of her case, and thereby increase his fame. So we learn Grace's story through her retelling of it to Dr. Jordan, as well as through various newspaper articles and books of the time. Grace herself does not know what her part in the murders was, although she seems to believe that she is innocent. But still she does not question too heavily her imprisonment.
Grace is a fascinating character, as we get to know her through the story of her life. She paints a vivid picture of what happens to girls who must work as servants to make their way in the world. One aspect that is especially interesting is the comparison between Grace's life and that of Nancy Montgomery, one of the murder victims. Nancy was the housekeeper of Thomas Kinnear, the other victim, but she was also his mistress. When Grace comes to work for them, it is clear that Nancy no longer thinks of herself as a servant, although that is still the position that society puts her in. It is unclear what Mr. Kinnear himself thinks of her position. The social intricacies make for an interesting read, in addition to the mystery of the murders. It is not certain how trustworthy Grace's own story is, but putting together the pieces is one of the best parts of the book.

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