In 1843, in a remote Canadian home an arduous 16 miles outside Toronto, James McDermott murdered his master, Thomas Kinnear, and the young housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in cold blood. But just how much active a part of the slayings was the 15 year-old maid, Grace Marks?
Both were captured in flight across the border in the United States with McDermott quickly tried and executed for the murders. But what of Grace? Was she the young lover of Thomas who egged him on as he claimed? Or was she a naïve innocent victim? The trial placed her somewhere between the two – found guilty but with the death penalty commuted to life imprisonment due to her impressionable age.
Grace was to spend some 30 years imprisoned in the penitentiary or, for a short period early in her sentence, the lunatic asylum. Introducing (the fictional) Dr Simon Jordan and the nascent science of psychiatry some 10 years into her sentence, Atwood gives Grace voice to tell her story. Or is it?
The beauty of Alias Grace is that it’s never clear as to what we can believe about her tale. Atwood acknowledged that she weaves truth and fiction liberally – but even within the fictional elements of the true story, is Grace a reliable or unreliable narrator? She admits telling the doctor what she thinks he wants to hear, but Atwood adopts a style that leaves us unsure as to whether the narrative is spoken or thought.
Encouraged by Jordan, leaving Ireland for a better life with her family is where Grace starts her story. The three years leading up to the tragic events at the Kinnear household is a highly detailed narrative – a drunken father, a mother who dies mid-Atlantic, a life in-service as maid. It is of particular fascination to the doctor who is trying to balance Grace’s claims of remembering nothing of the murders and her apparent role with this minutia of recall.
It is the struggle for truth that is at the core of Alias Grace. Is Grace as cunning as the newspapers have painted her? Or is she a victim of misunderstanding? The gaps in Grace’s memory are filled with reports from others – McDermott in his testimony, witnesses. She challenges them without knowing what actually happened. Scientifically, Jordan cannot grasp any understanding – changes were going on in the study of the subconscious, somnambulism, hysteria, amnesia and ‘nervous diseases’ but it is early days. Spiritualism, mesmerism (even a few digs at the Methodist Church) all come under the auspices of searching for a truth. Jordan can but speculate.
As do we as to what happened. We are left to draw our own conclusions. Hypocrisy and duplicity are rampant (Jordan’s own affair with his landlady a marked parallel to that of the relationship between Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery) and Atwood certainly follows a subtle but overt feminist line. Attitudes towards Grace reflect the ambiguity about the nature of women – the female fiend and temptress being the real perpetrator of the murders or an unwilling victim. And no single male comes out of Alias Grace in a positive light – except maybe Jeremiah, the pedlar who is an outsider himself. But even he subverts the search for a truth.
Like the quilts that are a prominent reference throughout the narrative, Alias Grace is woven patchwork of a tale. It does suffer from chronic longwindedness at times and the ending, bought about very quickly considering the details of what came earlier, is somewhat pat and contrived. But it’s nevertheless wholly engaging and fascinating.
Shortlisted for the 1996 Man Booker Prize, it lost out to Graham Swift and Last Orders.