Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace (1996)
Although there were many books I should have been reading and other things I should have been doing, once I started Alias Grace they all went by the wayside; I could not put it down. The subject matter is sensational in itself: the real-life case of 16-year-old housemaid Grace Marks, accused in 1843 of collaborating with her lover to murder her employer and his housekeeper (who also happened to be his lover). Atwood goes beyond the exploitative and voyeuristic thrills of such a story to give us a convincing, yet tantalizingly ambiguous portrait of a notorious woman that shakes up our assumptions about gender, class, sexuality, and morality.
The main thread of the story takes place several years into Grace’s incarceration — her death sentence as an accessory to murder was
commuted to a life sentence, which many sympathizers tried to overturn further. A young doctor with an interest in new scientific ideas about the mind is interviewing Grace, trying to bring unconscious material to light that might exonerate her. As she tells her story (with what degree of veracity is never entirely certain), his own life begins to unravel in a disturbing way.
In this murder mystery turned inside out, the question of “whodunit” becomes more than an effort to point the finger at a guilty party and feel cleansed thereby of our own misdeeds. Who does our deeds, really? What is the nature of the human mind and soul? What is happening in the shadows of our consciousness, where we scarcely dare to venture? Through an assemblage of various voices, pieced together like one of the quilts that Grace excels at creating, a picture starts to emerge, but it does not give us a fixed and definitive “answer.” Not unlike one of those quilt designs that can be seen in multiple ways — boxes or windows? — it shifts before our sight, as multi-layered and difficult to grasp as human awareness itself.
Thanks to Girl with Her Head in a Book for inviting me to join in a readalong of this terrific book. If you decide to pick it up as well, just be sure to set aside a couple of days — once you fall under the spell of Atwood’s lucid and compelling storytelling, you’re going to find it hard to attend to anything else for a while.