In her previous novel, The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood gave us an adroit liar/manipulator who preyed on her own best friends; in Alias Grace her fascinating outlaw is a 19th-century serving girl convicted of double murder. Actually, Grace Marks is no invention of the author’s — she’s a historical figure who occupies a place in Canadian culture similar to the one that Lizzie Borden holds in America. Nobody will ever know whether Grace really killed her employer and his mistress, but Atwood makes that mystery and the melodrama surrounding it simply irresistible.
In 1859, Dr. Simon Jordan, a doctor specializing in diseases ”of the mind and brain” travels to west Canada at the invitation of a local minister who believes that Grace is innocent. As Grace tells the good doctor the bleak, grinding story of her life, the doctor becomes locked in ever-increasing sympathy with her. Atwood’s cleverest ploy here is allowing Grace to narrate most of the novel; like the beguiled doctor, the reader must decide how truthful she’s being. While it takes some willing suspension of disbelief to buy into Grace’s storytelling, once you accept the literary device, the tale that she tells is both mesmerizing and caustic.
The book never takes a definitive position on Grace’s guilt or innocence. Being a novelist, not a detective, Atwood is far more concerned with exploring the smug Victorian world that shaped and punished Grace Marks than she is with condemning or vindicating her. Fair enough, I think — since this is a novel of enormous vitality and ambition, and a time machine of impeccable design. A