Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Review: Alias Grace

Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace is a tour de force of historical fiction. Set in 1859, Atwood draws from actual newspaper articles, court records and second-hand accounts to tell the story of Grace Marks after she was tried and convicted for her involvement in the murders of her former employer and his housekeeper. Atwood uses various devices to tell the story - actual articles, excerpts from the writings of Susanna Moodie, who interviewed Ms. Marks several years after her imprisonment, and letters, both actual and fictional. The fictional letters come from Dr. Simon Jordan, as he travels to Kingston to meet Grace and study her mental state. Dr. Jordan is a young doctor focusing on mental illness and he is convinced that Grace can be rehabilitated if she can access her memories of the event for which she was convicted and show remorse. Thus we learn about Grace's story as she tells it to Dr. Jordan, from the time she was a young girl in Ireland to the point of her arrest and trial.

Atwood also tells the story of Dr. Jordan, providing a bird's eye view on life in Canada in the mid-19th century: the facts of the lower classes and the prices they pay to provide for the upper class; the constant political tension and its effect on all classes; and the breakdown of the servant class in the absence of rigid social norms. Between his perspective as an upper class doctor travelling at his leisure and Grace's life of harsh servitude, Atwood captures a vision of life in the burgeoning frontier of Canadian society.

This novel is an excellent read. It is long and exhaustive but not exhausting - Atwood's prose is fantastic and poetic as always, and the dual storylines of Grace and Dr. Jordan are compelling to the end. Even though we know how Grace came to be imprisoned, there are many details that were not known; it is this story, the story of Grace as an individual rather than a patient or prisoner, that captures the reader's interest. As well, though we do not hear Dr. Jordan's story first-hand through to the end, we are thoroughly invested nonetheless.

Atwood also draws together many of the themes she so often touches upon in her written work. She manages to bring forward issues of feminism, both in the 19th century and present day, isolation, wilderness, free thought, and, of course, Canadian identity. The underlying political tension during this period in time, the failure of the Upper Canada Rebellion, is always present. Many of the characters are judged prematurely due to their supposed political affiliation, and any troublemaker is deemed a rebel. Even Dr. Jordan comes under suspicion by asking about Grace and her supposed accomplice. It is an interesting time in Canadian history: just prior to confederation but still closely tied to British interests and affected by American politics. It is an aspect of the novel that brings us closer to the characters as Atwood recreates the tension and turmoil of daily life that was felt by citizens of that time.

A highly recommended read, and a must for fans of Canadian literature.

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