Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace This is only the second book I’ve read by Margaret Atwood. The first was The Handmaid’s Tale, which I read in December 2012 and loved; thinking about which one to read next, Alias Grace sounded the most appealing to me but it wasn’t until it was selected for my Ten From the TBR project last month that I actually got round to reading it.

Alias Grace is a work of fiction based on a true story: the story of Grace Marks, a woman sentenced to life imprisonment for murder in 1840s Canada. Grace (who was only sixteen at the time) and her alleged accomplice, James McDermott, were accused of the murders of their employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Grace has been in the Kingston Penitentiary for fifteen years when Simon Jordan, a doctor with an interest in criminal behaviour, decides to visit her as part of his research.

Although Grace claims to have no memory of the murders, she does have plenty of other memories which she gradually shares with Dr Jordan: her childhood in Ireland, her journey across the Atlantic and arrival in Canada, her first job as a maid and her friendship with a girl called Mary Whitney – and finally, the time she spent in Kinnear’s household prior to the murders.

As Dr Jordan listens to her story unfold, he tries to make up his mind about Grace. Is she being completely honest with him? Is she really guilty of the crimes of which she has been accused? Margaret Atwood doesn’t offer any answers here; it is left up to the reader to decide – but proving Grace’s guilt or innocence is not really the point of this book. Grace’s life story is interesting in itself, giving us some insights into what it was like to be an Irish immigrant in the 19th century, and the novel also explores attitudes towards women and towards mental illness at that time.

Alias Grace is a fascinating blend of fact and fiction. Grace Marks really existed but although Atwood states in her author’s note that she has not changed any of the known facts regarding the murder case, there were enough gaps in the records to allow her to invent parts of the story. Simon Jordan is a fictional character, but his inclusion in the novel adds another perspective – and also another layer, because we can never be sure whether Grace is telling him the truth or just saying what she thinks he would like to hear. Hannah Kent uses a similar device in Burial Rites and as I read, I did keep being reminded of Burial Rites (although Alias Grace was published first, of course).

I loved Alias Grace, but it’s a very different type of book from The Handmaid’s Tale, which has made me curious about the rest of Margaret Atwood’s novels. Which one do you think I should read next?

24 thoughts on “Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    This is one of my favourite Atwoods – just wonderful! I’d highly recommend The Blind Assassin which is a masterpiece. Atwood is amazing.

  2. camilledefleurville says:

    Alias Grace is one of my best loved not to say my best loved Atwood’s novel. She may write very different books and has several styles. I was lucky to discuss with her in Paris some years ago and she is enigmatic and very conscious of being THE Canadian auhor, which destroyed my friendly approach. As Kaggsy sas, The Blind Assassin woul be a good follow up. Different from Alias Grace.

  3. Annie says:

    I agree with Tanya. The next book you should read kind of depends on what you’ve liked about Atwood so far. If you like the science fiction and speculative fiction elements, I’d say definitely go for the Maddaddam trilogy (though the series is more than just science fiction). If you’re more interested in what Atwood has to say about gender, almost anything else from her oeuvre will fit the bill.

    • Helen says:

      I don’t usually read science fiction or speculative fiction, but I did love The Handmaid’s Tale so I will still give the Maddaddam trilogy a try one day. I think I’m probably going to read either The Blind Assassin or Cat’s Eye next.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    I’ve only read The Handmaid’s Tale, many years ago when it was first published. Upon going to choose another Atwood book and discovering how different they all are, I was then paralyzed by my choice, afraid I’d go wrong and end up not liking her anymore. I like historical fiction, so this may be the one.

  5. Margaret @ BooksPlease says:

    Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors. I think the first one I read was Cat’s Eye which I really enjoyed. Since then I’ve read several of her books, all of which I enjoyed, including Alias Grace (my favourite of hers) and Blind Assassin. I don’t think you can go wrong really, but I did find Oryx and Crake less appealing than others. I have The Robber Bride on my TBR shelf – and hope to read it this year.

    • Helen says:

      Oryx and Crake and the other MaddAddam books don’t sound all that appealing to me either. I would still like to try them at some point but not until I’ve read some of her other books first. I hope you enjoy The Robber Bride!

  6. whatmeread says:

    I really enjoyed Alias Grace, but if you are interested in this technique of the relation of a crime, another devastating example of it is Corrag by Susan Fletcher. I know you like historical mysteries, and I think you wil love this one, about Glencoe. Since I see you are getting Atwood recommendations, The Blind Assassin was well enough, but the trilogy beginning with Oryx and Crake is fantastic. I know you say they don’t sound appealing, but they are actually great. I think I read The Robber Bride long ago, but I can’t remember it, it was that far back.

    • Helen says:

      I have read Corrag and yes, I did like it and thought it was beautifully written. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the Oryx and Crake trilogy. I wasn’t sure if they sounded like my type of books, but I will probably still try them at some point.

Please leave a comment. Thanks!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.