Friday, November 7, 2014

Thoughts on Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

I enjoyed this novel by Margaret Atwood. It is the third novel I have read by her. Alias Grace is historical fiction, based on the story of Grace Marks who was convicted of murder in the nineteenth century in Canada.

I have read two other novels by Atwood, The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid's Tale. Alias Grace is a different novel compared to these two. It is a detailed character study of a convicted woman; aspects of her childhood and circumstances that lead to her being implicated in two violent murders. What it does have in common with the other novels is a clear focus on female circumstances and point of view.

I liked the pace of Alias Grace, the plotting is well thought out and the tension builds steadily through the narrative, leading to the unveiling of events surrounding the murders. Atwood explores other contemporary issues in her story of Grace, including the different theories on mental health ailments at the time, and early experimentation in hypnosis. As in the other two novels I have read, Atwood's handling of the desperate plight of women who did not have family or wealth to back them up, is arresting.

I found this a very human story. The main characters are multidimensional and believable.  For me the most intriguing character was Dr Jordan, whose perspective on events informs the reader for part of narrative. His weakness was perplexing and really annoyed me after I finally put the book down. I think that is the strength of this novel, all of the characters are beautifully drawn, and, as in life, seemingly dependable people can be frustratingly weak and self deluded at times. There is a lot of complexity to the characters in this book.

There is variety in the structure too, with part of the novel told in the first person from Grace's perspective, part of the novel told in the third person, largely from the point of view of Dr Jordan, and sections of the story told through extracts from media accounts, legal accounts, and personal and professional letters. These were all artfully handled in my view and added real interest.

Ultimately this is Grace's story, and I think it will definitely stay with me for some time. Her voice was very clear, even though much of her life was about waiting and existing with very few options for friendship or communication. Atwood also leaves just enough unexplained, so that I was left wondering, and found myself thinking back on the story for some time. There is a clever playfulness to Margaret Atwood's work that I really like.