For a novelist who has primarily written of the present, Margaret Atwood has long had an abiding interest in the past. Her latest novel, ALIAS GRACE, picks up an historical thread Atwood first wove into a television play in 1974, then reworked again (in a fashion) in her poems about the historical figure Susannah Moodie. The story of Grace Marks is the story of a young Irish woman who emigrates to Canada in the 1840’s, where she takes up work as a maid. At the age of sixteen, Grace is convicted as an accomplice in the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear and his pregnant housekeeper and lover, Nancy Montgomery. The man convicted of the killings, James McDermott, is hanged; Grace is sent off to prison, where she spends some twenty-eight years of her life.
The complexity of the novel resides in the ambiguity of Grace’s guilt (or innocence). Atwood allows Grace to tell her own story, a story made problematic by significant gaps and contradictions in Grace’s memory. As a result, readers are never entirely sure of Grace’s nature; they can never be certain of the soundness of her soul or of her psyche.
Such uncertainty haunts the young American physician, Simon Jordan, who comes to interview and to study Grace Marks. It is to Jordan that Grace tells large parts of her story, but she tells that story self-consciously, always thinking of what the doctor wants to hear. Jordan himself is interested in understanding the mind and motives of...
(The entire section is 583 words.)