‘Murderess, murderess, he whispers to himself. It has an allure, a scent almost. Hothouse gardenias. Lurid, but also furtive. He imagines himself breathing it as he draws Grace towards him, pressing his mouth against her. Murderess. He applies it to her throat like a brand’.
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, Pg.453
Based on the true story of a salacious and shocking murder in 19th-century Canada, Margaret Atwood’s Booker prize-winning novel gives a voice to ‘one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the 1840s’. Apparently the result of a long-term fascination with Grace Marks, which started when she first read Susan Moody’s skewed account of the murders in Life in the Clearings, Atwood seeks to give a more fulfilling account of Grace Marks’ life whilst simultaneously opening up a wealth of questions and considerations. Nothing is ever clear-cut or straightforward and, whether or not Marks was a vengeful murderer or an accessory to a horrendous crime, the truth is secondary. What is important in Alias Grace is the need to bring to life – and give a voice to – a woman whose identity has been chosen for her by others.
‘You should never let your picture be in a magazine or newspaper if you can help it, as you never know what ends your face may be made to serve, by others, once it has got out of control’.
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, pg.251
Atwood is attempting to give back this control to Grace Marks. To give her the chance to tell the infamous story of her life in her own words, to fashion her own image not exaggerated or blown out of proportion by the media or second-hand accounts. However, we are made aware at times that Grace exaggerates her ‘truth’ in order to please her listener, Dr Simon Jordan.
Cobbled together by a variety of different sources – from letters, excerpts, testimonials, trial notes and quotes from contemporary literature – the main body of the novel follows the third-person perspective of the young American psychologist, Dr Jordan, whose meetings with Grace Marks prove to be quite fruitful in getting her to open up. It is through these meetings that we hear about Marks’ life, from her childhood in Ireland, her journey across the Atlantic and her life as a maid in Canada. It is only towards the end of this tome of a novel that we begin to learn of the fateful day that changed the course of her otherwise normal existence.
‘Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it that word – musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.
Murderer is merely brutal. It’s like a hammer, or a lump of metal. I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices’.
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, Pg.25
Aside from providing a fascinating fictional account of Grace Marks, Atwood also references key themes of the time in which the events are set. Alias Grace is very much a novel about mid-19th century Canada and how this particular time in history – the treatment of women and women’s sexuality, Irish emigration to Canada, the tensions between servants and their employers and the rising interest in spiritualism that swept across Canada – enabled the events of a bloody murder to catapult the young Grace Marks into the spotlight as a ‘celebrated murderess’.
Brilliantly and creatively reimagined, Alias Grace was an absolute delight to read. Although it took me a long time to finish – due to moving halfway across the world and starting a new job – whenever I found myself with some free time I was easily able to slip back into the 19th-century Canada Atwood brings to life in Alias Grace. I’m also looking forward to watching the Netflix miniseries adaptation next year!