15 January 2018

Alias Grace / Margaret Atwood

This is a kaleidoscopic novel, shifting the reader's view of convicted murderess Grace Marks at every turn through its use of first- and third-person narratives, letters, newspaper articles, and even song lyrics. We're provided with vast quantities of information, from Grace's early childhood in Ireland to her harrowing migration to Canada with her family, the various houses where she finds employment as a maid, the relationships she forms and the heartbreak she experiences, the events leading up to the two murders when she was barely sixteen, her flight with her alleged accomplice, the trial, and her long incarceration both in prison and in a lunatic asylum. Much of it comes from Grace as she tells her story to the ambitious young doctor determined to recover the missing fragments from her memory of the crimes.

She hasn't refused to talk — far from it. She's told him a great deal; but she's told him only what she's chosen to tell. What he wants is what she refuses to tell; what she chooses perhaps not even to know. Knowledge of guilt, or else of innocence: either could be concealed.

Each section takes its name from a different quilt pattern — Broken Dishes, Snake Fence, Lady of the Lake, Pandora's Box... —, an intriguing symbol that reappears several times over the course of the book. Grace, an accomplished seamstress, associates quilt-making with the notion of building a stable "home." As it threads its way through the narrative, I found this device particularly ingenious. Like the portrait of our heroine formed by assorted elements, each quilt consists of a number of pieces arranged in a certain sequence to create a picture that, as she herself remarks, can be viewed in two different ways depending on whether you look at the darker or lighter parts. Indeed, opinions about Grace could not be more polarized, regarding her as criminal or victim, manipulative temptress or submissive halfwit.

Although a fan of Margaret Atwood's writing, I'm generally averse to fiction based on real people or events. To be perfectly honest, no matter how well done, I usually find it exploitative. (There, I've said it!) While Alias Grace is undoubtedly a compelling work, skilfully keeping the reader in a constant did-she-or-didn't-she state of suspense, I couldn't shake a feeling of uneasiness as I recalled that it was based on historical facts, that some of these people had really existed.

I borrowed this book from my local library.

Rating: ***

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