IN 1970 MARGARET Atwood, known only in small, mostly Canadian circles for her poetry, published a book entitled The Journals of Susanna Moodie, a persona poem sequence written from the point of view of a legendary 19th-century Canadian pioneer who had encountered the notorious murderess Grace Marks on a visit to a lunatic asylum. Grace had been alternately institutionalized and imprisoned for the brutal murders of her employer Thomas Kinnear and his lover/housekeeper Nancy Montgomery, spared from the sentence of hanging her accomplice James McDermott because of a shadow of doubt about whether she was temptress or victim. Out of this rich documented history, Atwood, 26 years after publishing the book of poems about Susanna Moodie, returns to the character of Grace Marks in her 26th book. Alias Grace is the retelling of the events that convicted Grace, at age 16, for a crime about which she claims to have no conscious memory.
Structured in alternating sections told from Grace Marks' point of view as well as that of an omniscient narrator, this blend of fact and fiction is pieced together like a quilt (a deliberate metaphor established from the novel's divisions or chapters, each named for a particular pattern of quilting). The events leading up to the murders are revealed through narrative, letters, newspaper accounts, excerpts from Susanna Moodie's journal, notes by doctors and wardens and poems by Robert Browning, Emily Dickinson, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Atwood maintains an ironic distance that manages simultaneously to reveal the character of Grace in her own words and to paint a broad picture of mid-19th century Canada as a nation experiencing the passionate explosions of science colliding with spiritualism. This is the age of scientific disciplines and unbridled mysticism--studies of the brain and drawing room table-rapping seances, electromagnetic therapies and mesmerism. This is a novel about gender and power and the upheaval of superstition in the face of what may or may not be provable theory.
Grace Marks provides the catalyst for the mysterious alchemy of these forces and becomes the focus of a nation, embodying the projections of the age-old paradox of woman as either Nurturer or Sorcerer. Atwood provides no easy alliances; the deeper she delves into Grace's story, the less the reader's convictions as to innocence or guilt can be formed. She provides the perfect agent for the provocation of Grace's story in the ...