Victim or Femme Fatale: The Intriguing Alias Grace

Imagine yourself behind cold, impenetrable steel bars, in a space so grim and unfamiliar that your only comfort resides in the shabby tatters on your back. You are 16 years old and utterly alone, without any recollection of the events that have found you here. All you know is you have been convicted of brutally murdering your former employer and his housekeeper. Such was the circumstance in which Margaret Atwood’s unfortunate Grace Marks found herself in Alias Grace. Published in 1996, Atwood’s novel triumphs as a fictional account, inspired by true events, of the haunting and mysterious story of one of Canada’s most notorious female criminals.

As a young Irish woman growing up in Canada, Grace Marks tells the story of her dangerous journey from Ireland to Kingston, Ontario, where she finds herself impoverished, culturally alienated, and in constant fear of her abusive father. After immigrating, Grace begins to find work as a housemaid in the homes of wealthy Canadians. Eventually she comes to work for a man named Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery, both of whom she is later accused of murdering with the help of fellow servant, James McDermott. Upon her conviction, Grace is sent to the Kingston Penitentiary where she is visited by a psychiatrist named Dr. Simon Jordan, who desperately tries to unlock Grace’s memory and find the truth behind the murders.

Margaret Atwood, a leading lady in contemporary Canadian literature, has proven herself, once again, with this brilliantly crafted work of her imagination. Alias Grace deals with issues central to Canadian literature and interests, such as cultural biases, class conflict, and the notion of appearances versus reality. The novel’s primary character, Grace Marks, embodies the Canadian psyche claimed in early European narratives, which is that of the paranoid schizophrenic. Having spent time in the Lunatic Asylum in Toronto, Grace knows, all too well, the complications of being labeled hysteric and maniacal. Born in 1939, a hundred years after Grace’s conviction and sentencing, Atwood transgresses the boundaries of time and familiarity. Upon giving Grace a voice, although fictional, Atwood also exceeds the boundaries of history and allows readers to re-examine an authentic Canadian case that has been closed for over a century. By writing in the form of a first person narrative, readers are able to delve into the life and mind of a very complicated character who, in her time, would not have had much to say in her own defense.

Grace’s story is told chronologically, through her own recollections, and also through the letters, thoughts and actions of Dr. Simon Jordan and other key characters. The reader is certain to be left on the edge of their seat until the final page of the novel, wondering all the while whether Grace Marks is truly a victim of unfortunate circumstances or a murderous femme fatale. As a winner of the Giller Prize, Alias Grace is sure to impress, having been hailed by Canada’s own Maclean’s magazine as “a work that confirms Atwood as the outstanding novelist of our age.”

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