Margaret Atwood is nothing if not a hardworking novelist, and often something of a genre chameleon: she has made her work in science fiction with the MadAddam trilogy, dystopian fiction with The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, literary retellings with The Penelopiad and Hag-Seed, and historical fiction with works like The Blind Assassin. Alias Grace, her 1996 Booker-finalist novel, is another of her forays into historical fiction, and it showcases Atwood at the top of her game, with a subtle, elusive narrative that employs narrative uncertainty and distinctive character voices, as well as richly-textured period detail, to tell a story of exploitation and agency in nineteenth-century Canada.
Alias Grace is based on real historical events, namely the murder of Nancy Montgomery and Thomas Kinnear by James McDermott and Grace Marks, the titular protagonist, in Ontario in 1843. Grace was only fifteen or sixteen when the murders occurred; her family had emigrated from Ireland in 1840, and her mother died on the ocean voyage, leaving Grace responsible for her six of her surviving siblings and their alcoholic father (an older sister had entered the workforce prior and drifted away from the family). In order to support herself, she entered domestic service at the age of twelve or thirteen (she may have lied about her age). She eventually wound up at the isolated farmhouse of Thomas Kinnear, hired by housekeeper Nancy Marks, and the murders occurred shortly after. She fled Canada with James McDermott but was apprehended by authorities shortly after, tried for the murder of Kinnear, and sentenced to death, which was eventually commuted to life in prison, on the grounds of her youth and lack of education. She also spent seven years in a mental asylum, apparently mad from guilt. In 1872, she was pardoned, moved to New York, and disappeared into obscurity.
Atwood takes up the narrative starting with Grace in prison, some fifteen or so years after the trial. She is fascinated clearly by the gaps and inconsistencies in Grace’s story (she offered three wildly different confessions, and claimed at times to remember nothing of the murders themselves), as well as the decidedly melodramatic account of the murders recorded by Canadian writer Susanna Moodie. She invents a new character, Dr. Simon Jordan, a physician interested in the emerging field of psychology, who is interested in Grace’s stint in the madhouse and her lack of memory. He is hired by a group of charitable Kingston society people who wish to appeal for clemency for Grace to see if she is, in fact, innocent of the crimes. The novel thus unfolds as Grace narrates her story to Simon, and Simon (and the reader) struggles to determine if she is telling him the truth or not.
Grace’s first-person narration offers us little certainty. If you are hoping for a twist that will make everything come clear, I will offer one spoiler: there is no twist, at the end or anywhere else, that will peel apart the truth or falsehood in Grace’s story. There will be fragments and clues, but these will be taunts more than pure veracity. The instability in Grace’s tale for Simon appears in flickers and hints throughout, when she thinks, perhaps I shall tell him or suggests maybe this is what happened or simply claims not to remember: this is what I was told but I have no recollection. Her equivocating offers her plausible deniability, and it leaves us, and Simon, groping through shadows, attempting to discern her guilt or innocence. Characters such as Reverend Verringer or the prison governor’s wife insist upon her innocence; others, such as Dr. Bannerling, see her has an experienced, calculating manipulator. Grace neither fully defends herself against these claims or firmly maintains her lack of culpability. Maybe, perhaps, it seems, I don’t recall. Her dreams and visions (or hallucinations) complicate matters further, particularly her dream just before the murders in which she finds herself in a man’s arms. Did either Kinnear or McDermott abuse her? Maybe. I don’t remember. After all, “there are many dangerous things that may take place in a bed,” as Grace tells Simon.
Furthermore, the issue of Grace’s guilt or innocence is complicated by Simon himself, and everyone else in the novel who might be using Grace for their own ends. Simon wants to open his own asylum on more humane, therapeutic lines, and hopes if he can push Grace to remember what really happened, his methods will be proven in such spectacular fashion that benefactors and backers will flock to him. But Simon is also kind of a scumbag, to be quite frank, and Atwood shows this in a dozen subtle ways before she makes it unmistakably clear. In the early going, Simon’s third-person narration constantly compares women to animals. The first few times, it just seems like a quirk. But then one starts to realize that, on some level, Simon doesn’t see women as being fully human, or at least not as human as men. He despises his landlady and her maid, he has a genteel disdain for the governor’s wife and her smitten daughter, and sees Grace as something he can manipulate or dominate into giving up the truth. Grace coolly observes to him at one point, “For if the world treats you well, Sir, you come to believe you are deserving of it,” and it comes to seem a canny judgment on Simon, who has largely been treated well, and deeply resents that he is struggling now for money, that he is struggling to crack open the truth of Grace. Surely, he thinks, he deserves better, simply because he is who he is: an educated upper-class white man.
It meant I stopped caring, on some level, whether Grace was a murderer or not: I wanted her to resist and frustrate Simon, I wanted her to maintain the autonomy and agency that he was so reluctant to grant her. In this way, Grace is a striking contrast to Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale, another character trying to maintain agency in impossible circumstances, and it’s fascinating to hold the two in relation to one another to see Atwood’s awareness of the terrible traps of being a woman in an oppressive world.
Atwood’s real trick here is to produce a novel that feels, all throughout the process, like something sharp, precise, and clear, yet which in the end offers no clarity, no certainty, and no resolution. The questions we open with ultimately go unanswered, and the achievement is that, as a reader, I didn’t completely mind. The question of Grace’s innocence is somewhat beside the point: what we see unmasked is the cruelty of a society that will send a twelve-year-old child into full-time labor and leave her and those she loves open to exploitation by those who are more powerful and more wealthy than they are. Resistance can take a hundred forms: maybe it’s murder, maybe it’s sex, maybe it’s just a refusal to yield up the privacy of one’s soul upon demand. Maybe it’s obscuring the truth so well that it can never be found. Grace isn’t exactly given triumph, but she carves out many small victories little by little, and in the end, obscurity is its own reward.