Book Review: Alias Grace

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He thinks, with a certain mordant irony, that she may also be the only one who would satisfy all of his mother’s oft-hinted requirements, or almost all: Grace is not, for instance, rich. But she has beauty without frivolity, domesticity without dullness, and simplicity of manner, and prudence, and circumspection.

Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood

A few years ago, when I was taking a course at the local university, I had a classmate who wanted to pursue a career in publishing and was an avid reader and collector of old and rare editions of books. Once before class, when the class was discussing the latest episode of Game of Thrones, she remarked that she didn’t watch TV (with a clear attitude of superiority) and preferred books.

This bothered me. I don’t particularly love Game of Thrones (although I’m a huge fan of the novels), but I hate when books are considered to be a superior art form over movies or TVs. As a child, my parents took me to the library every Saturday morning to encourage me to read, but we also watched lots of TV (especially Korean programming, which is probably why I can still read Korean fluently) and movies. Books encompass so many genres, authors, and titles, so I’m not sure how someone could claim that books, as a single entity, are superior to all TV or movies. I’ve been impressed by so many shows over the past three or four years. Like a good book, a good show inspires me to think, to consider, to scrutinize.

One show I was especially gripped by this year was Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Having read the original novel a few years ago, I was skeptical of the adaptation, but I loved it. I was blown away by the performances by the lead actresses, as well as the expansion of the world created by Atwood in the novel. It caused me to reconsider the different roles women have in society, the relationships between women (whether camaraderie, familial, romantic…jealousy), and the roles men play in furthering (or hindering) gender equality. These were already issues I was interested in, but the series sprouted new ideas for me.

I found similar themes in Alias Grace, the latest Atwood novel I finished. This is my fifth Atwood work (after The Handmaid’s Tale, the Oryx and Crake trilogy, and The Heart Goes Last), and I loved it. Since the other works were mainly dystopian, I was cautious of reading historical fiction by Atwood, especially since I’d tried to read The Blind Assassin a few years ago and ended up abandoning it midway. However, Alias Grace is as topical and poignant today as it was when first written. It shares with the works listed above what I love most about Atwood’s works: exploring familiar themes in a slightly distant world.

Alias Grace tells the story of Grace Marks, a young woman who works as a maid in Toronto, who ends up being convicted of the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and suspected of the murder of his housekeeper and mistress, Nancy Montgomery. While Grace Marks is an actual historical figure, Atwood adds a doctor, Simon Jordan, to Grace’s narrative, providing an audience for Grace’s story. Dr. Jordan, who hopes to learn more about Grace and possibly diagnose her with a mental illness (also to further his own research), asks to listen to Grace’s entire life story: immigrating from Ireland to Canada, working a variety of households as a maid, and eventually being incarcerated for the murder of Thomas Kinnear.

What is especially brilliant about this narrative within a narrative is that while we hear Grace’s story through Grace, it is told to Dr. Jordan – therefore, this maintains the ambiguity of whether Grace committed the murders or was an unwilling accessory, since Grace’s true intentions are not revealed. It becomes clear over time that Grace is brighter than she lets on, and that as a young woman of low social standing, she has learned how to speak and behave in front of men, specifically those like Dr. Jordan. The addition of Dr. Jordan, while instrumental in showing attitudes that men had towards women in different roles (maids, widows, mothers) in the mid-1800s, also sheds light on the history of perspectives on mental health, especially concerning women, and the power men, and especially doctors, had over women’s lives. Overall, the novel is engaging and while being fairly predictable (if you read up on the actual historical Grace Marks beforehand), the addition of the fictional Dr. Jordan provides some unpredictability and suspense through Atwood’s clever embellishments.

YES OR NO?: YES. A little dull at first, Alias Grace provides a compelling, historical narrative, with relatable perspective on the role of women in society, whether today or in the 1800s. I’d recommend it if you’re a fan of Atwood and interested in historical fiction and gender issues – I’m personally pretty excited for the TV adaptation this fall.

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