“Alias Grace” is based on true events in mid-19th century Canada. Margaret Atwood takes a lot of artistic license to flesh out the story of Grace Marks, but she acknowledges the embellishments as well as the facts that hold the plot together.
Grace is a recent Irish immigrant to the Toronto area and soon begins a life in service (maid) to make money for herself and to avoid being a “burden” to her alcoholic father. After making a good name for herself she finds an offer to be the made for Thomas Kinnear who lives some miles outside the city. This important choices leads to a crime that rocked the area and left many wondering what actually happened and if justice was served.
At first I thought this book was going to be about female autonomy and agency. We hear about the toil of women with no access to birth control who are overburdened with too many children. Then we see the exploitation of young women servants by the male employers (or their sons) or the precarious line a woman must walk in order to maintain a good reputation.
The focus shifts then to the idea of truth and whether we can really ever find out “what happened” when it comes to a crime or whether truth is manipulated to fit the narratives the accused want to tell and society wants to hear. I found this thread to be most interesting especially considering the plethora of true-crime docu-series proliferating on tv.
The focus shifts from the truth in crime to mental illness and the development of humane care for the mentally ill as well as discussions of what constitutes mental illness and how to tell if someone has been cured.
Ultimately the book ends on a very bland note. I felt that a lot of the important threads are just left for the reader to piece together. I found myself asking the dreaded question, “what was the point of all that?” There was a lot of potential but I feel like it was wasted. The writing itself is spectacular and drew me in as I plowed through the novel. By the end I found myself losing interest and having to almost force myself to read it.
This makes for a good book club discussion because, at least for me, I need some outside help to process and make sense of the content of this tome.