Friday, 23 September 2011

Guest Book Review: Kylie Grant reviews Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Back in college when I did English Literature I studied The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. As is the case with most study texts such as this we seemed to dissect every word and I ended up disliking the book intensely. Unfortunately that experience has deterred me from picking up any more of Margaret Atwood's work, so I was particularly pleased when Kylie Grant offered me a review of Alias Grace, since I feel my readers are the sort who would like a judgement on whether to read this lady author or not!

Here is Kylie's review:

Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace tells the story of Grace Marks, an Irish Immigrant convicted at the age of sixteen to life imprisonment for murdering her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper and mistress in the early 1800s. At the time the novel begins, Grace has already served many years in prison and also been sectioned in an asylum, for violent and wild behaviour, and it is now up to Dr. Simon Jenkins, on behest of a community group that believe in her innocence, to finally make a decision about Grace’s guilt. Based on a true story, this captivating and disturbing novel depicts life in the nineteenth century, and explores the boundaries of sanity that lie within us all.

Alias Grace is every bit a Margaret Atwood novel. From the elicit detail to the changing narrative perspectives, it very much feels like you know who is pulling you in and unwilling to let you go until the very end. The first chapter is testament to this; a chapter that opens with a dream and ends with the ambiguous word, story, as if nothing about this novel is true, despite its grounding in a real life case. However, it does more than just direct the reader to whether Grace Marks will speak the truth in the novel, it also allows the reader to breathe, to imagine and to let go. Nothing is true, or nothing can be said to be true, judgements are therefore not wanted here; let your imagination do the work. This is why I have grown to love Margaret Atwood, one of the few novelists writing today who is brave enough to minutely detail a story, but in the end let the reader decide for themselves on how it is to be understood.

The novel, through Grace Marks’ perspective, details of the reported trial, and then Dr. Simon Jenkins’s narrative takes the reader through Grace Marks’ childhood, voyage over to Canada, her first experiences of employment as a maid, her close friendship with Mary Whitney (whose name she would use as her alias), her change of employment and life working for Thomas Kinnear, and her relationship with James McDermott, the man who was hung for the crime they were both convicted of committing. It is not a fast paced novel, the period details are thorough, and at times the shifting perspective slows the story down, however, as a reader you grow to enjoy the meticulousness of the narrative, and the depth you feeling you have towards the main characters, and there are also some shocking moments that rival any thriller.

For anyone who likes mystery the novel has plenty of it, the narrative will keep you guessing and Atwood leads you down lots of avenues of thought. In the end though, this book is all about belief. If you believe in the characters enough you will feel intimately connected with them, and willing to journey to the ends of sanity and back to understand them. It is also about Grace’s belief in Simon, can this eager psychiatrist really hold the key to her freedom? And then Simon’s belief in Grace, does he truly believe she is innocent, is he willing to forgo his scientific rationality, or his own belief in sanity? Do we as readers believe Grace Marks’ story, and if not, how far are we willing to be pulled along; just as Atwood is constructing a tale, how much is Grace guilty of it too? All of these questions Atwood carefully constructs and flirts with, as if we are all on trial and must ascertain what really constitutes our own understanding of truth. It is this, if nothing else, that will keep you reading up until that very last page.

Thanks so much, Kylie!

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