In November of 1843, 16 year-old Grace Marks* was convicted of assisting in the murder of her employer and his housekeeper in the small town of Richmond Hills, in what would one day become Ontario. The case made a splash in the papers at the time and Grace continued to generate interest well into the early 1900s. Because, even after all these years, we don’t know if Grace was guilty, innocent, victim, or something else entirely. Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace is a second attempt at telling the celebrated (alleged) murderess’s story. (The first was a TV film called The Servant Girl, made in 1974). And even after reading nearly 500 pages of Grace’s tale—supplemented by excerpted letters, folk songs, memoirs, and newspaper stories—it’s still hard to say what Grace’s verdict should have been.
Grace Mark’s history is related through her conversations with Dr. Simon Jordan. Jordan was hired by a committee to free Marks in 1858 to investigate Grace and her claims of amnesia on the day of the murders. The psychiatrist, hoping to test his theories about memory and word associations, begins slowly. Grace begins her story at the very beginning and we learn about her very humble origins in Ulster, Northern Ireland. Dr. Jordan does his level best to remain objective. To his credit, he maintains a degree of critical thought as Grace tells him about her first jobs as a maid-of-all-work in Toronto and how she came to work in the Kinnear household in the early 1840s.
The first person perspective is powerful. It’s hard not to be sucked in by someone telling their own story in their own words—even if they’re a convicted murderer. Because Grace maintains that she fainted and remembers nothing of the day that her fellow servant, James McDermott, murdered Mr. Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery, it’s up to the readers to decide what really happened. Atwood offers a solution, but it’s the kind of solution that’s supposed to be questioned. Even more troubling, because we have access to Grace’s inner thoughts as she talks with Dr. Jordan, we occasionally get passages like this one that make us question everything we’ve already read and will read before the book is over:
What should I tell Dr. Jordan about this day? Because now we are almost there. I can remember what I said when arrested, and what Mr. MacKenzie the lawyer said I should say, and what I did not say even to him; and what I said at the trial, and what I said afterwards, which was different as well. And what McDermott said I said, and what the others said I must have said, for there are always those that will supply you with speeches of their own, and put them right into your mouth for you too… (295**)
What are we to think? Dr. Jordan criss-crosses southern Ontario, tracking down people who remember Grace from the time of the murder. He talks to her lawyer. He talks to a tavern owner who lived in Richmond Hill. He also tracks down her doctors from the time, shortly after her imprisonment, when she was removed to an insane asylum.
Alias Grace is not a book for readers who dislike unreliable narrators. For readers who do (like me!), this book is a delight. I will be puzzling over Grace for days. When I read unreliable narrators, I look for a truth that’s somewhere in the middle of what all the characters are claiming. I learn which parts I can discount and which to trust. But I wasn’t able to do that very easily in this book. Grace is cagier than most. Many of the characters around her are uniquely biased, making it hard to parse truth from hyperbole from dodge from outright lie. Of course, that’s what makes Alias Grace so very good.
But then, I always expect the best from Margaret Atwood.
* This brief biography of Marks on Wikipedia contains links to contemporary newspaper articles and court records of the Kinnear-Montgomery case.
** Quotation comes from the kindle edition of Alias Grace and the page number is approximate.