Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Alias Grace ~ Margaret Atwood: Early Impressions

This post is the first of two for the Alias Grace read along at Bookish Habits.  I'm discussing the first half of the novel today, through Part VII: Snake Fence, and will be back on May 30th to wrap it up.  Worry not, for you will find no spoilers here.

Alias Grace is one of those novels that I've probably picked up 100 times and always passed over in favor of something else.  I'm not sure why, really.  Perhaps because the summary doesn't make me think of Margaret Atwood, whose novels I tend to assign to two categories: futuristic dystopia and close looks at the lives of contemporary women.  Alias Grace is neither of these, being historical fiction in a world that logically and historically precedes my own.

The novel tells the story of Grace Marks, a "celebrated murderess" accused of the murders of her employer and his housekeeper in Canada in 1843.  Her conviction was controversial and her death sentence was changed to life imprisonment, which ended up including time in an insane asylum.

Atwood artfully ties together historical documentation and fiction to put together the story, with multiple strands making up the novel.  At the center of the novel is Grace's first person experience of the present - it's 1859 and she has been in prison for 16 years.  At that time, she is working (without pay) in the home of the prison's governor during the daytime, and returning to prison at night.  Most of the page count up until now consists of her slowly telling her life story to Simon Jordan, a doctor who has chosen to work with her in the hope of helping her restore her lost memories of the murders and simultaneously make an important scientific breakthrough.  Another strand of the story consist of Simon's own experiences of Grace herself and his life surrounding his time with her, in the third person.  There are also letters between Simon and others, including family, friends, and colleagues, as well as epigraphs at the beginning of each section.  Most of these epigraphs are what people wrote about Grace at the time though some are literary quotes that are technically unrelated and included for thematic purposes.

Grace is a quite intelligent character, who you get the sense spends a lot of time pondering and analyzing, often coming to rather interesting conclusions.  For example,
I thought about widows - about widow's humps, and widow's walks, and the widow's mite in the Bible, which we servants were always being urged to give to the poor out of our wages; and also I thought about how the men would wink and nod when a young a rich widow was mentioned, and how a widow was a respectable thing to be if old and poor, but not otherwise; which is quite strange when you come to consider it. (163)
Grace is quite an interesting character, and lovable.  What I find especially intriguing is that Atwood has not yet had her claim either innocence and guilt, and I wonder if she ever will.  There's almost the sense that there's no such thing as either - her jail keepers are certainly guilty of abuse of the power (if not more) and she seems rather innocent of the ways of the world.

Simon, on the other hand, is not quite so sweet, but I can't help liking him as well.  Though his presence is, on the surface, scientific, you get the sense that he truly cares about Grace and wants to help her.  Though he is descended from wealth and certainly spoiled, with many obnoxious perceptions of others, there is something endearing about him.  Like Grace, he likes to analyze and concludes that  "he is one of the dark trio - the doctor, the judge, the executioner - and shares with them the powers of life and death" (82).

Thus far, this isn't a novel that grabs on and makes me read into the night.  It's a quiet book, that gives a view into the past and magnifies the minutiae of life, despite the seeming sensationalism of its subject.  It feels very much like an Atwood novel in that sense and, as such, is a pleasure to read.


  1. I agree with each of the statements you've made. I'll admit I found Simon's character almost unbearable in the beginning, I'm finding his character much more tolerable after reading reviews from you and Z.
    I also feel like this is such a sharp contrast to many of Atwood's novels, despite the fact that many questions are still raised.
    I'm so excited to see what everyone is thinking while going along. Can't wait for the wrap up post!

  2. I love that quote about the widows - I had highlighted it as well. You are right that Simon can be endearing despite his shortcomings, and he is at least amusing. Your note that even Grace herself does not claim guilt or innocence is an excellent point, as is the observation that the novel seems to be underscoring the fact that no one is completely innocent or guilty.

    I'm glad you're enjoying the read and are participating in the readalong, even if the novel isn't keeping you up at night!