Title: Alias Grace
Writer: Margaret Atwood
Publishing House: Virago
Date of Publication: September 14th 2017 (first published September 1996)
Rating: 5 stars
‘’…and the real curse of Eve was having to put up with the nonsense of Adam, who as soon as there was any trouble, blamed it all on her.’’
Grace is a murderess. She collaborated with her coworker to kill their master and his mistress. So the people say. So the people want to believe. Because, let’s face it, where’s the fascination in a murder committed only by a man? There’s no sensation, nothing to stir the crowds. Whereas a woman who took a life? Well, there’s the spectacle! Never mind that she may be innocent. This is a perfect chance to humiliate women, to place the blame on them and continue the tradition that started at the beginning of time…But Grace knows the truth. Or does she?
Margaret Atwood takes the story of one of the most famous female prisoners of the 19th century and weaves a masterpiece of a novel. Set in the 1840s in Canada and spanning almost 30 years, this is a confession and a fascinating journey to the mind and the life of a woman who has much to say and even more to hide. Is she a criminal? An innocent bystander? A cold-blooded killer? Is she a victim of her weak will? A small animal captured in a man’s well-constructed trap? And does anyone want to actually listen to her? When a young psychiatrist decides to dive into the darkest part of Grace’s mind, everything will change.
This is a novel that I consider perfect on every level. I’ve always believed that the finest writers can give us the conclusion at the beginning of the story and we’ll still be interested and invested in the development of the action. This is exactly what happens here. While Atwood doesn’t reveal everything at once, we have all the proper materials to ‘’guess’’ the end and there is still much space for suspense, agony and, speaking strictly for me, anger. Anger was the feeling that became my loyal companion while I was reading. Anger because of the double-standards of the time, the conviction that a woman is guilty by definition when accused, the habit of regarding women as objects for the men’s pleasure, ripe for the taking…And if we come to think of it, these notions are still alive today, in our so-called advanced era when many believe that gender equality is all done and dealt with and achieved. No, when I feel frightened each time I walk down a darkly-lit alley, each time a man sideglances at me, gender equality doesn’t exist. Forgive me if I digress but fury comes swiftly when I think that in many parts of our planet tyranny and violence against women are considered the norm, they are alive and kicking and they will never stop. And where do most of these false notions come from? Prejudice, superstition, religious fundamentalism.
‘’…and the people there love to fall down in fits, and talk in tongues and be saved once a summer, or more if available…’’
Jeremiah, one of the most enigmatic characters of the story, provides an excellent and extremely accurate description of the absurd religious panic that inflicts people of every race and every religion. The pious, God-fearing citizens look upon men to save them and are all too willing to believe in the condemnation of women. What I enjoyed in the way this theme is delivered in Alias Grace is that Atwood inserts the influence of such stereotypes in the field of Science as well. Educated men aren’t immune to prejudice and they attempt to research Grace’s case with preconceived notions in their heads. Enter Simon, the young psychiatrist who tries a different approach to understand the incidents and the tribulations inside Grace’s soul. In the process, he finds much more than he expected. I loved the way Atwood uses the newly-born ideas of Mesmerism and Magnetism and the rising of Spiritualism that became in vogue a few years later. In addition, she addresses the issue of Hysteria, the common belief that all women were prone to uncontrollable, violent fits of rage, another token of a society that refused to believe that women are actual human beings with the right to seek sexual pleasure and fulfillment. God forbid, these are principles solely belonging to men….
It’s hard not to get political when it comes to Atwood’s brilliant novels. Grace’s background is a highly troubled one. She comes from Ulster, an extremely tormented area, and becomes an immigrant to escape a country that is dying from famine and oppression. Furthermore, Canada is still shaking from the 1837 uprising and the aristocracy has become even more intolerant and cruel to those that are considered ‘’low’’ and ‘’uneducated heathens’’. In this historical and political context, we can understand how crucial are the themes Atwood addresses and how relevant they are, especially now. The gap between the wealthy and the poor, the discriminations against women, the blind faith.
Grace is a complex, intriguing character. In my opinion, she retains characteristics of the Unreliable Narrator because are we actually certain that her views on events and people are accurate? She comes across as a very sympathetic, level-headed, brave, considerate, dignified woman. She’s not afraid to express mistrust or uncertainty and has the self-discipline to keep her most ‘’controversial’’ thoughts secret until the opportune moment. Atwood takes us into Grace’s mind before she speaks and succeeds in creating a complete picture of our heroine. However, there is still an aura of mystery surrounding her and a strange, underlying sensuality and dark innocence.
Apart from Grace, we have two male characters that are equally interesting and mysterious. Simon and Jeremiah. Simon is very complex, in my opinion. Very real and perplexing. He is not free from his own demons, he has some fairly obscure ideas about sexual pleasure but he desires progress and knowledge. He has travelled extensively and believes he has all the necessary means to tackle Grace’s strange case. However, he isn’t prepared enough for what is about to come. Simon gave me much trouble as I was trying to understand him and realize his motives. He is mysterious and there is definitely a darkness inside him so he is an excellent counterpart of Grace. Jeremiah is a walking riddle. A man of the world, a magnetic presence, an enigma.
This review may come across as passionate or even politically incorrect but when books make you feel so many powerful emotions after reading a few chapters, you know they have succeeded. When the author is Margaret Atwood you know you are in the safest hands possible. This is a classic, a novel that should definitely be included in the finest of the 20th century. Oh, and certain misogynists/trolls/pseudo-scholars that have been lurking on GR lately, better stay away from Atwood’s novels, like The Handmaid’s Tale or Alias Grace. They will prove bad for you sensitive moral values and blood pressure….
“What is believed in society is not always the equivalent of what is true; but as regards to a woman’s reputation, it amounts to the same thing.”
*A very interesting article on the real Grace Marks and her trial: http://the-history-girls.blogspot.com/2017/12/an-historical-enigma-real-grace-marks.html )