I had this book on my shelf probably for the last 6 years. I’ve been reading Margaret Atwood’s books since my first year in university, I go at a slow pace I probably read one every two years. The first one was Lady Oracle and I loved it, I don’t remember much of it now, so it definitely is on my list to reread. Then few years later I read The Handmaid’s Tale and found it earth shattering, so much that it took me another few years to get to The Heart Goes Last and the collection of her short stories Stone Mattress. I even had Alias Grace on my 2017 TBR, but the size of the book somehow intimidated me. I do think that due to watching too many series my attention span is now really small and I discovered I have a fear of committing myself to a book that I know I will be reading for over a week. A fear that must be overcome of course, but it does not feel natural for me to reach for such a book instinctively, so I may end up, having read all my shorter books, with bookshelves full of books over 500 pages.
The books is wrapped around a real story and a real person – Grace Marks, at 16 years old accused of a double murder and sentenced to life in prison. We’re in the second half of 19th century in Kingston, Canada and Grace has been in prison for 16 years. There are multiple petitions being sent to request her release, as her statement and the statement of James McDermott, who was accused of the murders with her, were incoherent and often contradictory. Some people saw in Grace an innocent and unwilling accessory, others firmly believed she was the instigator and that she convinced McDermott to commit the deed. In the book after 16 years of Grace being incarcerated one of the groups seeking her release hires Dr Simon Jordan to assess Grace’s mental state and try to recover the memories of the event that Grace claims she’s lost. Jordan spends weeks with Grace in the Governor’s house, where she goes every day from prison to work as a maid, initially trying to get her to trust him and then listening to her. When Grace starts talking she tells him the story of her entire life, starting in what she remembers from Ireland, through hellish travel to Canada, places she worked as a maid and slowly but surely arriving to the critical day.
As Grace unravels her story, Dr Jordan seems to be falling apart. Initially he does seem a composed young man, but we quickly find out that his father died and his mother is overprotective and adamant that he must marry. He then proceeds to get enchanted with the Governor’s daughter, only to move his affections to Grace, for it all to end up with his landlady and leading to problems. Clearly not the most level headed of men. Grace’s story also undermines his hold on reality, he wants to believe her, but every time he tries to find corroborating evidence there is nothing substantial, every one of his theories can be proved or disproved equally easily. This leads him to desperate measures and agreeing for Grace to undergo a hypnosis seance. I’ll stop here, for fear of spoilers.
The story moves at a relatively slow pace, Atwood knows she has endless space and uses it. She describes details of Grace’s work as a handmaid, all houses, rooms and chores are described in detail, she wants to give us the complete sense of time and space. In Grace’s tales she quite often speaks of quilts and quilting patterns and each chapter of the book is named after a pattern. That is also how this book feels, a quilt put together from various pieces of literary material, for the narration jumps from Grace to Dr Jordan to letters exchanged between various characters in the book.
Atwood slowly builds for us the oppressive atmosphere of the second half of 19th century, were social norms were confining and binding everyone, where women had a lot less rights, had to be subordinate to men and were often abused by them. This is why Grace’s character revolves on the axis hung between innocent victim and ruthless instigator, both confirming stereotypes held about women at that time (sometimes I’m not sure if we advanced very much since then). Atwood writes about consciousness and conscience, she makes sure Grace’s character is ambivalent at all times, we can actually believe either of the theories.
What I struggled with was that I didn’t really care about any of the characters, I could not sympathize with them. Grace throughout the book feels a bit aloof and distanced, as if she closed herself in her own world and is not affected by her situation or anything else, as if she put a glass wall between herself and reality. This is why together with Dr Jordan we could actually believe either of the thesis, she may be ruthless and manipulative but she also often feels naive and innocent. Dr Jordan himself is yet another matter, I completely could not understand his motivations, his rash decisions and being overly emotional about everything that happens, I felt like he shouldn’t be a doctor and definitely not one working with patients with mental health issues, in fact he could probably use one himself.
I have mixed feeling about this book, it was not bad and touched on important topics, but on the other hand it did feel too long and I could not connect with any of the characters. It will not be my favorite book by Atwood. When I started reading it I told myself that I’m going to watch the series later, but now I am not so sure.
Did you read it? Did you like it? What is your favorite book by Atwood?