About the Book
It’s 1843, and Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer and his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders.
An up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories?
Captivating and disturbing, Alias Grace showcases best-selling, Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood at the peak of her powers.
468 pages (paperback)
Published in December 1996
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This book was an audiobook purchase on Audible.
I’ve been on a bit of a Margaret Atwood kick recently. I listened to The Handmaid’s Tale at least three times, not because I wanted to hear it over and over again, but there’s a value in studying how a master storyteller weaves her art.
Alias Grace is a different animal, but I’m discovering what Atwood’s traits are, and they shine brightly here as well as in The Handmaid’s Tale despite their differences of subject. Atwood excels at creating quietly groundbreaking characters – characters who seem to shine more inside, than outside. Grace Marks, on the surface, is just your average Irish immigrant trying to make her way in the world. It isn’t until you get into her story a bit that you realize that there is a lot under the surface, quietly lurking.
It took me a little while to get into Alias Grace, not because it’s a bad story, but because it just took some time for me to sink into the story Atwood was telling. It’s a slow burn novel. Grace doesn’t open up easily, and there are a few false starts before she feels comfortable enough to speak.
What interested me more than her story, however, was all the things that Grace doesn’t say. This seems to be another foundational element of Atwood’s writing. There’s an entire world of essential information that is never really said. Grace, for example, is eager to tell her story once she gets used to Simon, the doctor studying her mental fitness, but there are quite a few episodes of inner dialogue where Grace thinks about events that happened, things she could say, but ultimately doesn’t.
In this way, Atwood subtly weaves together a story of a woman who is a house divided. She never really tells readers what happened, whether or not Grace actually did this thing. She gives readers a plausible explanation, but it’s impossible to know if it’s real or not. Historically, Grace Marks and her trail are fertile territory for a novelist of Atwood’s skills. No one ever really knows if Grace did the crime. When she’s released from prison she just literally disappears into upstate New York and is never heard from again. The trial was sensational and made newspapers everywhere. Grace told three different versions of events.
The story is worth listening to. However, what really captivated me was how Atwood uses her stunning prose (wow, seriously) to create a character, Grace, who is basically a universe in her own right. She’s soft spoken, well mannered, and ultimately conflicted, and throughout this entire story, readers get a feeling that they are only being told half of what Grace really knows, and how much of that is the truth is uncertain. There’s very little verifiable fact, either now, or back then.
Atwood’s prose is what keeps me coming back to her work time after time. She has a way with words that makes the simplest thing, the most innocent description, just punch me in the gut and lay me out. That’s why I’ve listened to The Handmaid’s Tale so many times. Ultimately, I like the writing of that book better, but in Alias Grace we get to see how subtly Atwood can create a character and undermine her at the same time, tell a story, and make it both believable and ultimately impossible to believe at once.
So, Alias Grace is a great book. It’s an interesting story, but the real artistry here is in the incredible prose and Atwood’s absolutely incredible character development. I listened to the audiobook, and I found the narration to be fantastic. The narrator had an easy, guileless tone that made Grace’s voice really come to life.