thoughts on books: alias grace

I loved Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. The pacing was excellent and the story compelling. The fact that it is a true story of a double murder and no one really knows (or likely will ever know) what really happened was handled in a way that seemed to enhance rather than ruin the ending. The fact that so many aspects of human nature and the mind and memories and dreams were not well explored in the mid-1800s also adds to the mystery.

Things have changed since 1859, which is when the book opens on Grace Marks serving time in prison for the murder of a wealthy man (Thomas Kinnear) and his housekeeper (Nancy Montgomery). Grace was a model prisoner but had a complicated past. Born in Ireland, her mother married an abusive alcoholic and later died on the voyage to Canada. Grace’s father spent the family’s money on booze and could not keep a job. Grace became a servant, along with maid Mary Whitney, in Toronto. Mary helped Grace learn her trade but became pregnant by the boss’s son – she died after having an abortion. Grace was devastated and moved on to work at the Kinnear household. Along with Nancy and Grace, James McDermott rounded out the servants as a stable hand. The three did not get along and eventually Grace and James were fired by Nancy. Here’s where things start to get murky. Grace is in prison because she is suspected of helping McDermott (who was convicted and hanged) kill Kinnear and Montgomery.

In the book, Grace’s case is re-examined because model-prisoner Grace is being considered to participate in a supervised program to serve as a housekeeper in the Governor’s house. He is an advocate for social reform. Dr. Jordan, a medical doctor-turned-psychologist, is tasked with determining whether Grace is innocent, as she has maintained, or guilty. He uses various approaches to help Grace remember her past – the use of objects, discussion and hypnosis, to name a few. At first, he believes Grace’s story that, although she does not recall all the details, she is innocent of the crime. As time goes on, he starts to doubt her story but also starts to have sexual and violent fantasies about Grace, questions whether she is manipulating him, and questions his own sanity. This comes to a head when hypnotized Grace begins speaking in Mary Whitney’s voice and says that Grace is innocent but she (Mary, who is dead) is the one who helped McDermott. Needless to say, Grace remains in prison … and Dr. Jordan leaves.

The story raises many questions about experiencing and treating mental health condition, both then and now. Was Grace mentally ill or knowingly creating a storyline that included Mary? Was she manipulating people or was she unintentionally fabricating a story as she tried to fill in the gaps of her memory? Did she manipulate McDermott to kill, was she as guilty as he, or did he involve her in something horrible that created a mental break? Were Grace’s dreams helping to reveal the truth or creating a fiction? Were Dr. Jordan’s methods helping or harming Grace? The book leaves the ending open – Grace finally gets out of prison but there is a last mystery that is not so straightforward and leaves questions unanswered.

Understanding the motivations behind people’s actions and behaviors is a complex undertaking and underpin the challenging questions presented in this story. Certainly, if Grace’s intention was to get out of prison or work in the Governor’s house, then intentionally bringing Mary into the narrative was a mistake. But, if Grace was a manipulator, perhaps she could not help herself in exploiting Dr. Jordan’s weaknesses and unsettling those around her who had exerted control over her for years. It would be tempting, would it not? What do you think?

It’s definitely worth a read!

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