Hot on the heals of a successful TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale comes a Netfilx adaptation of Alias Grace, another of Atwood’s best-selling novels. I’d take any excuse to re-read this excellent book, which is still as good today as it was in 1996. It’s based on the true story of Canadian domestic servant Grace Marks who in 1843, at the age of 16, was convicted of murdering her employer Mr Kinnear and fellow housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. Atwood’s interest in the case go beyond the murder, of course, and into the dark depths of women’s, particularly poor women’s, standing in society; the prejudices held against them, the sexual abuse and innuendo, the back-street abortions and the assumption that they are all liars. An absolutely riveting read.
Grace’s alleged accomplice, farm hand James McDermott, was hanged for the murder while Grace, because of her young age, was sentenced to life in jail. With its cocktail of sex, jealously, pretty women and bloody violence, the case became legendary in Canada, America and even in Britain at the time.
We meet Grace as she has served 15 years in jail. Dr Simon Jordan, a young ambitious doctor with an interest in mental health, has become intrigued by her case. Some people feel she’s been wrongly convicted and Dr Jordan wants to understand more. He gains Grace’s trust and, for the first time, she’s allowed to tell her side of the story. It is a tale of incessant suppression, exploitation, mistrust and injustice. But is she telling the truth? A cloud of suspicion hangs over her and Atwood challenges our own prejudices by planting the occasional seed of doubt.
…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.
As many of you will know, feminism features heavily in Atwood’s writing. For her contemporaries, Grace is an unsettling character; too smart for her social class and sex, a striking beauty with auburn hair; a witch? Is she a sly calculating woman or a young girl shackled by her circumstances. And by the way, Grace is not the only woman who’s held back, abused and taken advantage of in this book. Even Dr Jordan, who is by far the most sympathetic to Grace’s cause, finds himself struggling to practise what he preaches.
Few contemporary authors make good writing seem as effortless as Atwood. She somehow manages to create compulsively readable yet profound novels. Stories that operate on multiple levels; that simultaneously portray individuals and all of humanity. Alias Grace is thrilling reading, an unputdownable whodunit with multi-layered characters, a chilling atmosphere of fear and sexual tension and a moving portrayal of a life gone to waste.
Alias Grace is published by Virago, 560 pages. (Or you can be lazy and just jump straight to the TV-series on Netflix which is out now)