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Alias Grace


chuntzy
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A true story is at the heart of this work of fiction.

 

The central figure, Grace Marks, was one of the most notorious Canadian women of the 1840s, having been convicted of murder at the age of sixteen. The Kinnear-Montgomery murders took place in 1842, the sensational details of which were reported not only in Canada but in the United States and Britain.

 

Much of what we learn about Grace is from her recollections during the sessions with a Dr Jordan who is trying to understand what really happened by listening to her and assessing her conscious and unconscious mind. Easier said than done. Five hundred pages later and we're left to make up our own minds about her guilt or otherwise. Personally I think she was as guilty as hell.

 

But Atwood doesn't make it easy for us of course. Whereas Grace has a minute recollection of details of every item of laundry that she ever washed, and how to deal with stains, and how to get whites really white, for instance, (she worked as a servant on arriving in Canada from Ireland) she somehow can't remember much about the murders.

 

"What should I tell him, when he comes back?...I could pick out this or that for him, some bits...I could say this". In such a way Margaret Atwood

alerts us to Grace's unreliability. Grace can put on an act, no doubt about it.

 

The novel ends in a slightly surprising way.

 

For long periods I was totally enmeshed in the book but, as quite frequently happens these days, found the last few chapters a bit of a drag. But a four star all said and done.

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I read this novel earlier this year and pretty much feel the same way as you. I thought it was a good look at the life of a servant and the time period. I also think Atwood did a good job with the characterization, especially Grace. There were times that I liked her, times where I was suspicious of her, and times where I was annoyed by her. I, too, think she was guilty, but remorseful after her time in jail. There was one particular part I liked where Grace says:

I had a rage in my heart for many years, against Mary Whitney, and especially against Nancy Montgomery; against the two of them both, for letting themselves be done to death in the way that they did...

Grace had no trouble looking at others' mistakes, but a little difficulty examining her own actions.

 

It's interesting that Margaret Atwood has done a 180 regarding her opinion of Grace's guilt. In the '60s, she wrote a made-for-TV movie in which she portrayed Grace as guilty. After reexamining the case she felt she was wrong. which led her to write this novel.

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It's ten years since I read this, and my brief notes summarise it as a "Curate's Egg".

 

I suspect that I was disappointed that we are left wondering about Grace's guilt. If MA wrote this book because she no longer thought Grace was guilty, she hasn't done enough to convince her readers of her subject's innocence. Slow Rain and Chuntzy both think she is guilty. My notes do not refer to any conclusion I might have drawn at the time, I think I changed my mind several times as I read.

 

I also appear to have been a bit irritated by Dr Simon Jordan and his messy personal life.

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I read this about 9 years ago and I remember really enjoying it. It stands out as one of the first contemporary adult fiction books I read. I went on to read a lot more Atwood, and read this novel again about 7 years ago.

 

I was never sure if she was guilty. I suppose I decided not, but that might just be typical of me.

 

I'd like to read it again actually. Perhaps I was just impressed at the time. I haven't been very impressed with Margaret Atwood since I tried to read Onyx and Crake and the Handmaiden's Tale - I know the latter is very highly regarded but I couldn't get on with it.

 

Megustaleer - I think you are right in saying she doesn't put a strong case for Grace's innocence. It was highly ambiguous, but I think that is one of the reasons I enjoyed the novel so much.

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I chalked up the difficulty in pinning down Grace's guilt/innocence to Atwood's objectivity. She could easily have made the novel very one-sided, but she didn't. She put forward all the facts and let the reader decide. I admire her for that. Plus,

wasn't it temporary insanity? I have problems with temporary insanity. Wait...that doesn't sound right. What I mean is, I have problems with people who use temporary insanity as a defence.

 

 

I liked the messy personal life of the doctor. I thought it was quite true to a young man in rut, and it was a good portrayal of a man whose ambitions and ability may not be equal. He also provided a nice compliment to Grace in that his life was starting to go the way hers did. What would/could have happened if he'd continued down that road?

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I read this about eight years ago, then again a couple of years back. I love the way this book is constructed. The whole book is a patchwork, as Atwood shows with the names of patchwork patterns dotted throughout the book. It is, of course, a patchwork of information gathered from many sources, both real and imagined.

 

I have a friend who does patchwork quilting and she has names for all her patterns. The names do not always give an indication of what I'm looking at. Log Cabin, for example does not always look like a log cabin, Half Way Round the Moon is a mystery to me. And I think that's what Atwood was trying to construct here. A mish-mash of data that gave a picture about Alias Grace - whether the reader can see it or not is, as has been said,is up to him/her. I think that's really clever.

 

Then Atwood ends the book with all these elements brought together. The white farmhouse furnished with cross-stitch pictures (another woven picture) and patchwork quilts in all the bedrooms; Wheel of Mystery in hers, Log Cabin in another and finaly the Tree of Paradise that is mentioned throughout. - again colour here is given in great detail - which weaves all the elements of the story we have just read. I loved this part.

 

I took all the information about getting things white, Chuntzy, as a metaphor for Grace trying to whiten her character or even, wash her linen in public and come out without a stain.

 

After all this time and two readings of the book, I'm still not sure of her guilt or innocence. She was said to be clever and quick witted so she could still be deceiving us all. This is a book I could read over and over and still enjoy for the story, it's construction and the sheer love of Atwood's narrative. This is one of my favourites from her.

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There are some motifs in the writing, Barblue, that I never really picked up on and the patchwork theme you allude to is one of them. I see now what you mean. It's strange how one's own failings, like mine with any form of needlework or mending, can make a person 'skim' - that subconscious at work again.

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  • 7 months later...

I too was unsure if Grace was really guilty or innocent, but I think this ambiguity is the cleverest thing about the book. I did quite like Grace as a character, so perhaps I leaned to the side of her being innocent. I certainly sympathised with her. I liked Mary Whitney too, and the contrast between her and Grace was cleverly done. I think this book is an interesting examination of woman as helpless and as demon, and perhaps as both. Atwood shows that things are more complicated than simply one or the other.

 

I didn't like Dr Jordan in the end, and I think his motivation in helping Grace was questionable. I think SlowRain makes an interesting point about his ability and ambition not being equal. And the patchwork theme that Barblue discussed is also interesting.

 

There's a lot here to mull over, and I love books like that. That being said, some of the plot points were a bit odd and seemed a little too convenient...

 

 

especially the supernatural bit near the end.

 

Too easy, perhaps?

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  • 7 months later...

i'm about half way through this book and I have to say that I perfer it to the following Atwoods - Handmaids Tale (what was so great about it?) and The Robber Bride (Annoying characters)

 

I don't know how I will end up feeling about Dr Jordan but at the moment I find him a necessary evil to this books means of telling us Graces life. I like Grace so far - I find her very calm and self-aware. I don't know if that makes her a killer but I look forward to finding out how Atwood depicts it.

 

Since Nancy has only just appeared in Graces life I am uncertain as to how I feel about her also. But the situation strikes me as very very odd.

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  • 6 months later...

I finished this yesterday, I'm also thinking that Grace is guilty

 

 

- she's a good liar, chooses how to depict her story and has conviniently forgotten a lot - but the ending where she creates part of the patchwork quilt with her prison nightdress, something of Mary's and Nancy's dress so that all three are twinned together put doubts in my mind again, although more about her insanity than her innocence.

I was annoyed at Dr Jordan when he slept with the owner of the house - during a dream - how convinient! But was shocked when it wasn't him that married her

 

a great novel.

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  • 2 months later...

Another engrossing and intriguing novel from Atwood. It's a few years since I read this so details are hazy but do remember enjoying it and in the end still being undecided about Grace. Perhaps it is better that we don't pass judgement now with time and space so far between us and this young ladies troubled life.

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  • 3 years later...

I started reading this book last night and am best part of 100 pages in already. Having read The Handmaid's Tale recently I decided to give another of Margaret Atwoods books a try and as Alias Grace was recommended by other BGOer's I thought that this would be as good as any. Luckily I found a copy at my local library so if I am not keen it has cost me nothing.

 

As the book has been recommended I did not read the synopsis given on the back of the book before starting so had no idea what the book was actually about. When following authors or reading books on recommendation I like to start with no preconceived impressions if possible so have not yet read any previous posts on this thread either. The subject matter of the book is very different to The Handmaid's Tale which I did expect. Although very different the book seems to have been as well written and although, like The Handmaid's Tale, it is a little odd in places I am again finding Margaret Atwood's writing strangely compelling.

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So pleased you are reading another Atwood CP.  My contribution to this thread (which you presumably will read through later) shows, I think, how much I love this one.  I've read it twice and could easily read it again and again.

As you suggest Barblue I will read the previous posts when I have finished Alias Grace as I do not want to read it with any pre-conceived ideas whatsoever. From comments and advice on other threads it does sound as if many people have read and loved this book. I am finding it very easy to read and feel as if I am being drawn in already.

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I am about half way through Alias Grace already as I am finding it difficult to put down. I am having to force myself to get on with other things! I have still not read previous posts, I will do that when I have finished.

 

So far the story is being told by Grace Marks (Alias Grace) as she recounts events to Simon Jordan who visits her while she is in prison. He is making a study of people suffering with amnesia. The language used by Grace (a former servant girl) is very understated and rather quaint in many ways as her account includes her own thoughts and feelings at the time of each event. Although she leads a hard life she seems to be a very strong, straight forward girl who left to her own devices would do no wrong. At this stage I would like to believe that she was more sinned against than sinning.

 

As Grace's story unfolds I am finding myself to be more and more engrossed. The detail of Grace's recounting of her story could be boring but this far from the case. Even when talking of everyday chores I find myself virtually hanging on every word. The story is building to its climax wonderfully.

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So pleased you are reading another Atwood CP.  My contribution to this thread (which you presumably will read through later) shows, I think, how much I love this one.  I've read it twice and could easily read it again and again.

Barblue, I finished Alias Grace this morning before getting up to start the day. I have now read all previous posts including yours and am trying to put together my own thoughts on the book. I loved your comments concerning the patchwork quilts, as you say in many cases the book itself is a patchwork drawing information from a number of sources. As I did not know when starting the book that the fiction was built around a real person and two murders it took a while for the meaning of the extracts at the begining of each part of the book to sink in. I think that the way in which the book was constructed was extremely well done.

 

As to Graces's guilt or innocence! Like Meg I found that my belief in her innocence came and went along with my liking of her. As I have stated in a previous post after reading about half of the novel I wanted to believe that if guilty she had been easily led into a situation of someone else's making, not of her own. As the book continued however Grace seemed to me to be less of an innocent and more and more calculating. By the end of the book I feel that she may well have been guilty. As others have stated if Atwood wrote the book thinking Grace was innocent she has probably failed to convince most readers, not that I think for one minute that she intended to paint Grace as a flawless character. I very much like the way that Atwood leaves the reader to come to their own conclusions.

 

Another post mentions Grace's desire for white items around her home and the many references to washing and bleaching things clean. It has been suggested that in doing this Grace was trying to wash her past clean. I really like that idea and would like to believe that if guilty Grace was repentent.

 

Overall an engrossing book. I am sure that I will read more of Atwood's novels.

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  • 7 years later...

As recommended by Hayley of Book Club Forum and I am so very glad I read it because otherwise I would not have and what a miss that would have been!

 

I have read Atwood before and so it was easy to take the recomendation because I knew it would be good, but that's all I knew.  The title is a great one and I did not realise that it referred to the lead character, Grace Marks. The book is fiction but Grace Marks is a real person and the furore that surrounded her is also real insofaras she was jailed for murder.  The other main characters were also real and James McDermott was hanged for his part in the murders. Set in the 1800's in Canada and America this is the imaginary life story of Grace Marks and the shocking (at the time) murder of her last employer and his housekeeper. How much did Grace know? How much was she involved?  Why did she run? Why is she wearing the dead woman's clothes? 

 

I won't giveaway the ending but the book is superb and well worth the reading. 

 

I got the quilting reference but didn't realise about the washing, well spotted Barblue, and that does make sense because I was wondering why it was mentioned so often.

 

Recommended.

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