Sunday, June 5, 2011

5. Alias Grace (1996) - Margaret Atwood

The mills were sold, and the imposing house of his childhood, with its large staff of domestics - the chambermaids, the kitchen maids, the parlour maids, that ever-changing chorus of smiling girls or women with names like Alice and Effie, who cosseted and also dominated his childhood and youth, and whom he thinks of as having somehow been sold along with the house. They smelled like strawberries and salt; they had long rippling hair, when it was down, or one of them did; it was Effie, perhaps.

This is the first book of Margaret Atwood's I've read and it didn't disappoint. It is a historical-fiction novel based on the real-life trial of Grace Marks who, along with James McDermott, was convicted of killing her employer Thomas Kinnear and his house-keeper (and supposed mistress), Nancy Montgomery. The book begins at the end essentially, with Grace already having been imprisoned for a number of years. A fictional doctor, Simon Jordan, investigates her case as he tries to research criminal behaviour, but he ends up becoming personally involved and almost obsessed with trying to determine Grace's true culpability. Barely sixteen at the time of her conviction, Atwood presents a woman who in her later years is just as gentle, hard-working and plain-speaking, if considerably wiser than her younger self. She now knows what needs to be said and has built a sufficient protective wall, but there is an innocence and frankness which intrigues both Doctor Jordan and the reader alike. Utterly engrossing all the way through, I found Atwood's narrative style engaging and nostalgic. Similar to Grace herself, it appears that all the facts have been laid bare in this book, brought out piece by piece, and yet the truth remains elusive. A beautiful and heart-rending story to be contemplated long after the final page is turned.

4 stars

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