Friday, January 24, 2014

Book Review: Alias Grace (1996)

There's a lot to love in Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood's take on a historical figure in 1800s Canada. In 1843, Grace Marks and James McDermott were tried and sentenced for the murders of their employer and his housekeeper. James got the noose; pretty 16-year-old Grace got life in the asylum.

The author develops Grace through Grace's own vivid accounts, letters about Grace sent by other characters, and third-person narratives used for Dr. Simon Jordan, who seeks to unlock her memory. Grace claims amnesia when it comes to the actual killings. 

Atwood excels at descriptions, and the sheer detail and clearness of Grace's story as she tells it to Dr. Jordan is at odds with her lack of memory during the crucial moments that led to her imprisonment. Atwood also doesn't use quotation marks whenever Grace holds the perspective, so it's unclear whether she's thinking or speaking. In other words, Grace is a superbly unreliable narrator. 

The novel unfolds masterfully. It begins with Grace mulling over her situation, 15 years after the murders. Then comes Dr. Jordan, and Grace's eventful life is revealed, bit by bit. Dr. Jordan, an American, shows readers the complications of upper-class life, as he is hounded by his ailing mother to settle down, and must perform the social dances required of his position and by the fact that he needs some patronage. As Grace's story reaches its climax, so too do the complications in the doctor's life build to an unbearable point. 

Themes abound in Alias Grace. There's memory and identity, religion, society and inequality, gender roles and biases, marriage and freedom, brain science, rival schools of "scientific" thought, continental Europe and North America, superstition, innocence, and more! 

My only quibble is that the Reveal -- which, yes, is connected to the title -- was meh. I think I got my hopes up after an unexpected plot twist. Also, the events immediately following the climax seemed to drag. 

But everything up to that point was awesome! Atwood provides wonderful descriptions of a certain period in Canada, and unpacks her myriad themes elegantly. Color me impressed. 

Bottom line: recommended, especially for history buffs! I shall seek out more Atwood.

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