Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

atwood_alias.jpgIn 1843, a 16-year old Canadian servant named Grace Marks was convicted for being an accessory to the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and was also suspected of killing the housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Another servant, James McDermott, was convicted of actually shooting Kinnear. Both were sentenced to death, though Marks' sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. The crime was widely publicized, with great controversy over whether Marks was a premeditated co-conspirator, as McDermott claimed, or merely an unlucky accessory after the fact. Marks served her sentence at the Kingston Penitentiary, with a brief interlude at an asylum for the mentally ill.

This historical snippet of true crime is the inspiration behind Margaret Atwood's 1996 novel, Alias Grace. The main narrative takes place in 1859, sixteen years after the murders. Grace remains imprisoned in Kingston, and is now employed during the day as a servant/seamstress by the wife of the prison's governor. Headed her way is a young American doctor, Simon Jordan, who intends to employ psychological observation to unlock the mystery of the murders, namely by filling in Grace's professed memory gaps. Most of the novel is told either via Grace's first-person recollections, third-person observations of Dr. Jordan, or through a series of letters between Dr. Jordan and various correspondents. Grace's perspective is at once the most direct, most powerful, and naturally the most suspect:

The reason they want to see me is that I am a celebrated murderess. Or that is what has been written down. When I first saw it I was surprised, because they say Celebrated Singer and Celebrated Poetess and Celebrated Spiritualist and Celebrated Actress, but what is there to celebrate about murder? All the same, Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word - musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.

Murderer is merely brutal. It's like a hammer, or a lump of metal. I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices.

As he arrives and begins his afternoon interviews of Grace, Dr. Jordan is filled with ambition and scientific curiosity. He has plans to make his name and found his own asylum. Yet the further the story progresses, the more troubled he becomes. He becomes terribly entangled in the personal life of his landlady. He is also being subtly pursued by the Governor's daughter. And his lack of progress with Grace (a particular flop being his attempt to trigger Grace's memories about the bodies in the cellar by bringing root vegetables to the interviews) increases his self-doubt:

The trouble is that the more she remembers, the more she relates, the more difficulty he himself is having. He can't seem to keep track of the pieces. It's as if she's drawing his energy out of him - using his own mental forces to materialize the figures in her story, as the mediums are said to do during their trances. This is nonsense, of course. He must refuse to indulge such brain-sick fancies. But still, there was something about a man, in the night: has he missed it? One of those men: McDermott, Kinnear. In his notebook he has pencilled the word whisper, and underling it three times. Of what had he wished to remind himself?

This is the third of Atwood's novels that I have read. While Alias Grace does not quite rise to the heights of The Blind Assassin or The Handmaid's Tale, it is a cut above what most anyone else has been publishing over the past decade. Atwood has a particular skill for setting her novels outside the present day, be it in the past, like the mid-19th century in Alias Grace or the 1930-40s in The Blind Assassin, or the future, as in The Handmaid's Tale or Oryx and Crake.

I was particularly impressed at the way she portrayed 19th-century understandings of psychology. There are certainly indications that, if Grace's story can be credited, she may have suffered from a dissociative identity disorder. Dr. Jordan, for all his insights, remains limited by the nascent state of experimental psychology, and Atwood offers what appears to be a faithful rendering of the science a la 1859. Jordan's psychological explanations, limited though they are, are a tremendous advance beyond the Spiritualist explanations offered by Grace's other well-intentioned observers. And Atwood makes sure to leave enough ambiguity for even the modern reader, with all our wisdom about memory and psychology, to remain discomfitingly uncertain about Grace's true role in this violent chapter of Canadian history.