Thursday, 9 August 2018

Maiden or Murderess? (Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood)

“Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor.” - Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace

With Alias Grace, I broke the cardinal rule of reading: I watched the TV show first. Alias Grace is based on a crime that really happened. Grace Marks really did live in Canada in the 20th century, and she really was involved in the murder of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. This is a heavily fictionalised version of her story, fleshed out from the few sources that are available.

Sex is a central theme of this novel. It's very much a study in how this society treats men vs how it treats women. On the female side, we have Grace, who is either an innocent woman who assisted James McDermot out of fear for her life, or a wicked temptress who seduced him into committing violent acts. We have Rachel Humphrey, who is trapped in a marriage to an old major who drinks away their money and vanishes for weeks at a time. We have Mary Whitney, who is tricked by a wealthy gentlemen's promises of marriage, and Nancy Montgomery who serves as both her master's mistress and his housekeeper. Even the minor female characters, like Lydia and Faith, have their trials. One forced into a loveless marriage, and the other bound to sacrifice her life to play nurse to a man who secretely despises her. I would honestly go as far as to say that Faith - a character we only ever hear about in letters - has the worst fate of all of them! On the male side, we have Dr Simon Jordan, who appears to see women almost entirely as sexual objects for his own pleasure, but is a hypocrite when other man admit to having those same thoughts. We have Thomas Kinnear and the sons of Mrs Alderman Parkinson, both of whom take advantage of their servants (sadly, this was very common historically, and often led to no consequences for the man even when the servant become pregnant, lost her job, and died.) We have James McDermot, who is violent, crude, and resents having a woman in a position of authority over him. We also have Jamie Walsh who, like Simon, seems to enjoy the tales of Grace's suffering, especially the sexual violence.

The big question that Simon is trying to figure out is whether Grace was sane at the time of the murders or not, but there's also the bigger question of her guilt or innocence. Grace, for her part, claims that she does not remember the murders though, as Simon points out, she seems to remember everything else in minute detail. Grace is an ambiguous enough character that I'm stumped. On the one hand, she shows definite signs of crafting her narrative. On the other, if you are to believe the big reveal during the hypnosis scene, then she must be innocent. Except, aren't all of Jerome's acts tricks? I remember there was a line in the TV show about how perhaps seances and hypnosis and the like attract so many women because it allows them to say what the are thinking. Everything Grace says under hypnosis has a ring of truth because she's thought something similar earlier, but, as she says herself, “If we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged.”

I docked a star from this because at times I found Grace's tone too monotonous. She is telling a story and her voice is carefully crafted and consistant throughout, but at times she bored me.  

I recommend this to anyone who likes reading about true crime, sexual politics, or mystery fiction. If you like answers though, this isn't the book for you.

How often do you see the film or show before you read the book?