Friday, 2 December 2011

Villain or Victim?

Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite writers. I love her poetry, her non-fiction, her speeches, her tweets, and especially her novels. I was introduced to her work through her amazing 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale but my admiration for all things Atwood was solidified with Alias Grace (1996).  

Based on real life events in 1843, this is the story of Grace Marks, a 16 year old servant, who was convicted of murdering two members of the household in which she worked.  Thomas Kinnear, Grace’s employer, and Nancy Montgomery, Kinnear’s housekeeper, were killed. Grace has been convicted although she does not remember the murders. Dr Jordan is sympathetic to Grace and attempts to uncover her memory of the crime. The novel unfolds piece by piece as the reader tries to decide whether Grace was actually guilty of the crime or a na├»ve innocent who was also a victim.

Atwood is a compelling storyteller and she uses her talents to craft a portrait of Victorian times in Canada. From the way she uses language, to her depiction of domestic life and descriptions of the new science of psychiatry, Atwood adds layers to the novel. Feminist undertones appear in the exploration of the impact on women of poverty, repression, violence, sex and mental health. 

Alias Grace reads like a 19th century classic and a modern day who-dun-it. The story builds momentum at the halfway mark and becomes a real page turner. It is an understatement to say the book is well written – it is Atwood after all. Delightful turns of phrase are littered throughout. Her humour is evident, even in dark moments. She switches point of view from Grace’s first person narrative to Jordan’s third person account convincingly.

Atwood has clearly researched this case well. I particularly loved how each chapter begins with a piece of the factual account – an excerpt from the trial, a newspaper clipping, or a quote from one of the parties. I also liked the fact that the question of Grace’s guilt or innocence is not resolved by Atwood – she leaves it up to the reader to determine. This novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Canadian Giller prize.

My reviews of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003) are also available on this blog.