If you watched my Instagram story from the beginning of this week (I don’t have Snapchat, so I actually found it kind of fun to use the new Instagram story feature!), you’ll know that I finally finished Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. I recently wrote a blog post about the difficulties I was having getting into the story and acclimatizing to Atwood’s often tricky narrative voice, but I am happy to say that I grew to really enjoy the novel and I am quite happy that I stuck it out and read all the way to the end. According to Goodreads, I started reading the novel on July 19th, so it took me just under a month to finish it, which is not bad for a 550+ page novel, especially considering the fact that I work full-time.
Here’s a more comprehensive review of my thoughts on Alias Grace…
Alias Grace is a very interesting and thought-provoking novel, and I would probably say that it is my favourite Atwood work that I have read to date. Although I struggled in the beginning, for about the first 100 pages, with the writing style (for example, the lack of quotations and proper punctuation during Grace’s narration) and with all the details that seemed arduous and much too wordy, I really developed a feel for the story as I delved further into it, and I became accustomed to Grace’s manner of speaking and to the various narrative voices that Atwood employs. I also started to become more invested in the plot, and I put on my own detective hat for a while, trying to piece together the information about the murders of Nancy Montgomery and Thomas Kinnear. As I reached the point in the novel when Dr. Jordan listens to Grace’s narrative about her life and the events surrounding the murder, I was able to start to investigate my own feelings about Grace and speculate about her degree of guilt. I haven’t reached any definitive conclusions, even after finishing the entire story and allowing myself to consider each point of view, but I will say that I don’t think Grace’s involvement in the murders is clear cut and I don’t know that I think she is entirely guilty or innocent – there is certainly some grey area in between, and I believe Grace inhabits that space.
Probably my favourite aspects of the novel were the portrayal of Grace’s complex personality and psyche, as well as the description of the setting…
Grace Marks is a remarkable and fascinating woman. I know that Atwood based as much of the novel as possible on fact, and I do understand why 19th century individuals would have been intrigued by Grace’s story and would have lined up to see her. I am very conflicted about my feelings toward Grace – as I said above, I don’t know if I believe her to be solidly guilty or innocent, and I do think she made several very poor decisions during her time working for Thomas Kinnear. There were undeniably moments when she could have revealed James McDermott’s plan and saved herself from becoming an accomplice to murder (if that was in fact her only role in the crime). However, even despite the ambiguities surrounding her involvement, I found myself empathizing with Grace and feeling sorry for her. She had a rough, uncomfortable childhood, especially during her immigration to Toronto, and she was forced to become an adult at a very early age and learn to provide for herself. This ultimately led to her employment at Kinnear’s home, and I think she felt reluctant to leave her position, even when there was suspicious activity, because she felt as though she didn’t have a home to call her own. She was a woman, or a girl rather, trapped in unfortunate circumstances… And I do mean trapped. I don’t think Grace had any other choice but to be in the position she was in, as her options were very limited, and I cannot imagine being a girl of the age of 15 or 16 who has no family, friends or even acquaintances to rely on or receive advice from. It’s my opinion that Grace got mixed up in a bad situation because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time…but I also believe that Grace had no other option and that she would have ended up in dangerous circumstances regardless of whose house she worked at. Having said all that, I can understand why Atwood was haunted by Grace because I feel that she must’ve been severely misunderstood in her time, and I think it is a testament to Atwood’s immense skill as a writer that she took the time to thoroughly research Grace’s life and document its details with impressive accuracy.
As far as Dr. Jordan goes, in terms of other main characters, I found him to be a complex character mainly because he was often very hypocritical and ended up totally surprising me with his actions toward his landlady Mrs. Humphrey. I thought I had Dr. Jordan’s identity pegged at the beginning of the novel, as a studious and lonely doctor, but many other layers of his personality were revealed, and it turns out that I didn’t really know him at all. He had a much more sinister side than I ever could’ve expected, and while this caused me to respect him less, I found him to be a more interesting character because of it.
The greatest source of interest, for me, in the novel was the treatment and description of Toronto and its surrounding areas, including Richmond Hill (where Thomas Kinnear lived). I found it fascinating to read about my own city and imagine what it was like in the 19th century. Although this novel is not at all written in the Victorian style, it does describe the 19th century in vivid detail, and I often lost myself in imagining the streets of Toronto in a completely different light. I also felt the urge, after finishing my reading, to visit some of the sites mentioned in the novel. I wonder if Thomas Kinnear’s house still stands in Richmond Hill and if his and Nancy’s graves can still be found at the Presbyterian Church. I wonder if the streets I walk on my way to work or during daytrips downtown are the same ones that Grace Marks walked. And if I ever visit the Kingston Penitentiary, will I see the very spot where James McDermott was hanged? There’s nothing quite like reading about a familiar setting and experiencing this discomfort when it becomes unfamiliar and unrecognizable to you. I think it informed my understanding of Toronto’s history to get a glimpse into what it was like to live here 200 years ago.
I have heard that Alias Grace is being made into a TV series, and I think that is a great idea. 550+ pages is a lot to get through, especially when the writing is so dense, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for not being able to undertake the challenge. But Grace’s story, and particularly Atwood’s treatment of it, is very unique, and I think many people would find the plot interesting and intriguing. I’ll definitely be giving the show a try.
Finally, I should mention my least favourite aspect of the novel… Any and all reference to Susanna Moodie. Her text Roughing it in the Bush was the bane of my existence in university, and I cannot shake this sense that she was an incredibly annoying woman!
❥❥❥ (out of 5)
Girl with a Green Heart