She is guilty. She is not. She is guilty. She is not.
Margaret Atwood’s ninth novel and historical fiction Alias Grace is brain-wracking, disturbing, yet oddly seductive—much like its protagonist.
Atwood takes the hard facts, colours in the gaps, and carefully stitches together the seam between reality and fiction. The tale is based on one of the most ‘celebrated’ murder cases in Canadian history, in which servants Grace Marks and James McDermott were sentenced to death for the murder of their employer and his mistress. McDermott was hung, while Marks’s sentence was reduced to life imprisonment due to arguments for her youth and sex. She was later pardoned and released.
In her novel, Atwood transforms Grace into a sort of ‘femme fatale’, who garners the attention of men around her. Most notable of them is Dr. Simon Jordan, a psychologist assigned to determine Grace’s metal health and involvement in the murders, which she claims not to remember.
The characterisations are luscious and compelling. An accomplished seamstress, Grace is a private character that Simon and the readers must unravel throughout the novel, but she is also elusive. Standing on the needlepoint between truth and lies, Grace seemingly concocts her stories, weaving together a formula for compassion and intoxicating curiosity. Simon—an allusion to the biblical “fisher of man”—sets out to ‘hook’ her, digging through her mind for potential clues and answers. But in the end, naïve and lustful as he is, it is he that is hooked at the end of Grace’s line, along with the readers.
The read can only be characterised as thrilling—the murder occurs before the novel itself, yet the mystery plagues the book and extends beyond its ending. Each section of the book begins with a type of quilt pattern related to the upcoming portion of the novel, followed by epigraphs of quotes, poems, and historical support that are sometimes in direct contrast with Grace’s tales. In her stories to Simon, the reader is convinced that Grace is innocent. Yet the few-worded comments she thinks to herself lead the reader to believe otherwise.
But as doubtful as I was, I wanted to believe Grace was innocent, as Simon did. Her charm, adept storytelling, difficult childhood, and smooth demeanor are magnetic. Her title as “celebrated murderess” is darkly elegant, dangerous, and thus alluring. Even her cutting perception of Simon, the governor’s wife and daughters, and other ladies of the era are so candid that they extort respect. She is a strong, sly, and clever woman, one unlike most of her time. She is exciting. Everyone else seems foolish under her scrutiny.
At the end, no question is answered. Grace is still a wonderful enigma and the truth is open for assumption. She is set free, but her mental world is still sewn shut.
And the uncertainty is haunting.
Article by Robin Park