Alias Grace, a demanding, lengthy, historical novel, is Margaret Atwood’s ninth work of long fiction. The book derives from the story of an actual person named Grace Marks, a nineteenth century Irish immigrant to Canada who had been accused of being an accomplice in the murder of her employer and his housekeeper-mistress. The case was one of the most notorious and widely publicized of its time.
Atwood initially came to know of the event after reading a contemporary account in an autobiographical work by Canadian writer Susanna Moodie, Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush (1853). Atwood was so taken by the story that she wrote a long poem, “The Journals of Susanna Moodie” (1970), which is a re-creation of and commentary on Moodie’s work. In Moodie’s account, Grace is the instigator. She wants Thomas Kinnear as her lover and, thus, persuades James McDermott to kill Nancy Montgomery, her rival. McDermott realizes Grace has set him up and kills Kinnear in a rage. Atwood thought about the story for years before writing her own version. A major feminist author, Atwood wanted to set straight the record of injustice and female oppression, or at least to explore fully the enigma of Grace, who claims to have no memory of the murders.
Atwood’s novel combines historical accuracy with an account of Grace’s heart and mind. In the novel’s chronological twists and turns and its multiple stylistic shifts, Atwood presents an elaborate spelunking expedition into the depths of the complicated story to render visible the tale’s darkness. Chronologically, the above plot summary of the novel merely suggests how adroitly Atwood manages her story. Stylistically, it is a classic demonstration...
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