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Posts Tagged ‘Alias Grace’

I said last week that I was going to approach the Challenge Tuesday posts a little differently this year, and read with purpose.  I actually started reading this particular book in December but feel that it meets my new criteria so am reporting on it anyway!

Alias Grace is a novel by Margaret Atwood, who is one of my favourite writers.  It is a fictionalised story based on the true life character of Grace Marks, who was convicted with her alleged paramour of the murder in 1843.

I enjoy Atwood’s writing style, which is both complex and entirely accessible.  In this particular book though, it wasn’t the style but the approach that I found so intriguing and noteworthy.

There were two murders for which Marks and James McDermott were accused: the killing of Thomas Kinnear, their employer, and of Nancy Montgomery, the housekeeper and likely lover of Kinnear. Montgomery was pregnant at the time of her death, which at the time stood against her: although the pair were convicted of murdering Kinnear, there was no trial for Montgomery.  As the death sentence had been passed there was deemed to be no need.  In fact, Marks was not executed but was pardoned in 1872.

But despite all the dramatic possibility within these elements Atwood doesn’t focus on them.  They set parameters in which the character’s experience of the world is set, but they are not the core of her story.

Instead we are presented with a (fictional) doctor whose interest in what we would now call mental health leads him to meet with Marks, to see if her amnesia about the events of the fateful day is real.

What follows is a mixture of Marks’s life story, interwoven with the doctor’s experiences in the town he has taken up residence, and some of the well-meaning but somewhat frivolous people who are trying to get Marks pardoned.  The crime itself is only described in any detail during a session of something akin to hypnosis.

Marks is humanised through the book.  Her reflections on what is ‘proper’ behaviour for staff in a household are both ironic and heartfelt: her regret with regard to her own breaches of etiquette is completely believable from the character Atwood has created, and yet we are aware the doctor is only interested in understanding her because she is a notorious murderer.

As a whole, the book could be the biography of a murderer, or about a famous crime in Canada in the 19th century, or about life in service, or about mental health.  It is all these things and none: it takes elements from multiple genres to create a rich meal.

Fundamentally, as a reader I took away the fact that in a strong story the crime itself doesn’t need to be the focus, it is the criminal (or accused, at least) who has to be deciphered.  As a writer, I have a better perception of how to take a real event and cast it under a fictional light.

Extremely satisfying, on both counts!

Happy reading,

EJ

🙂

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