Monday, 23 February 2009

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

DATE PUBLISHED: 1997 DATE READ: January 2009 (audiobook) NOTES: After being implicated in a brutal murder Grace Marks (aged 16) is sentenced to hang but this is commuted to life imprisonment – but her accomplice hangs. Grace recounts her story in a sardonic and at times ironic way. She claims to have no memory of the murder taking place although there is much circumstantial evidence of her participation. The truth of her story is never fully explained but she is revealed as a clever, hardworking girl desperate to love and be loved. There is a heartrending description of the boat journey from Ireland and her mother’s death and burial at sea. Grace chooses to have the body wrapped in the second best sheet – though this rational decision haunts her afterwards. Likewise she rationally takes the murdered Nancy’s clothes on the basis that she has no further need of them. Grace is continually let down by the men in her life. Her father is a drunkard and violent. Simon the doctor/psychologist leaves her suddenly (following his own weakness in seducing his landlady). Even young Jamie Walsh speaks against her at the trial having earlier professed his undying love for her. The memory of her first friend Mary Whitney shines throughout the book. Mary is funny, truculent and spirited and dies following an abortion which is horribly described. Grace’s hopes that Nancy will replace Mary are soon dashed – and Nancy’s lover Kinnear soon has designs on Grace (another man that lets her down). The book raises lots of issues on servant/master relationships, the penal system, memory and redemption. Attwood cleverly uses quiltmaking as a metaphor throughout the book. Just as the final pattern of a quilt depends on how the fragments are put together, Grace’s story depends on what she chooses to tell us. By the end we are left with no firm answers about Grace’s guilt but nonetheless come to admire her strength of spirit and her resolve to survive. A brilliant multi-layered classic!

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