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Book Review: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Book Review: Alias Grace

One of Canada's best authors with an impressive body of work, Margaret Atwood has won numerous awards for her writing. Her characters are drawn with a vivid pen, and faced with ironic situations that pull the reader in. Atwood gives us writings that explore class and values and the complex relationships between men and women with compassion and a sense of humor. Sometimes I avoid opening up one of her new books, because I know I will be unable to walk away from my addiction to her writing, and get nothing else done. Her best-known work, The Handmaid's Tale, a dystopia, was made into a movie.

Alias Grace is a story of intrigue and suspense, based on a notorious nineteenth century murder case, which filled newspapers with stories of a quadrangle love affair gone wrong. At a time when the use of the steam engine made and broke the fortunes of many, sixteen-year-old Grace Marks, is picked up with stable hand, James McDermott at an inn, and accused with him of the murder of their employer, Mr. Kinnear and Nancy his housekeeper and mistress. Grace, who has amnesia, cannot bring back a clear memory of that day. Did she try to protect Nancy or help to strangle the girl?

Set in Canada in the early 1800s, the story opens after Grace has served 15 years of her life sentence, and now stays overnight in a prison, but is allowed to work outside. She is the protégé of the Governor of the prison, whose wife desires her considerable sewing talents, and comes to see her as a gentle person who could not have performed such an indelicate act. A committee of spiritualists and reformers gather, and seek to obtain a pardon. They employ Dr. Simon Jordan, who has studied the subconscious and hopes to use dreams and symbolism to make a bridge to the memory of the event.

The doctor dreams of doing well on this assignment so that he will be supported in his desire to run his own asylum and use his humanistic methods. He has limited resources because his father lost his mill when the industry went south. His mother insists on keeping up the illusion of wealth and keeps pushing eligible women towards him, enumerating their sewing skills. He hopes to become a success with his project with Grace before he is found out to have limited resources.

 At a time when tying up or bleeding the insane were commonplace, Jordan uses some of the modern methods he learned during his European education. He brings root vegetables from a purloined garden to set in front of Grace in the hopes that objects growing underground will stimulate her to pull out unearthed memories.

Atwood's book is threaded with rich metaphor. An example of the author's colorful description of Grace's new employer, Mr. Alderman Parkinson is as follows: "He was the shape of an apple with two sticks stuck into it for legs. He had so many gold watch-chains and gold pins and gold snuffboxes and other trinkets, you could have got five necklaces out of him if he was melted down, with the earrings to match."

The use of fabrics just before the widespread use of the sewing machine is like a leitmotif through the book. Grace's choice of a soiled sheet for a burial at sea, haunts her dreams. She takes great pride in removing stains; it is not too much of a leap to wish her industry could be applied to her marked life. She describes patterns of quilts that she would like to make, and their symbolism, that are made through the phases of a lady's life. She speaks of a shade of red and orange that she sees in the setting sun that she has seen duplicated on quilts. She muses on how such a bright color, which would shut out rest, could be used on a place to sleep, but then she thinks it could be a warning, for many dangerous things take place in a bed.

Plagued by her own lack of memory around the event, Grace too, places a lot of hope in the doctor's visits. Does Grace ever get her pardon? These and many more questions will be answered between the covers of this memorable book.

To the collector, Margaret Atwood has already made her mark. I know I saw a signed first edition of her book, The Robber Bride, offered for $300, and a poster that she produced before publishing anything going for close to that amount. The International Book Collectors Association has her listed as a collectable author. So, now is the time to scoop up prospective rare books.

Those who are interested in studies of her works may want to know about the Margaret Atwood Society, which publishes critical studies, a newsletter, and meet to discuss this innovative writer and critic. Winner of the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award, People’s Choice, for The Blind Assassin, Atwood is a galvanizing force in promoting the acceptance of Canadian writers and publishers.


View Our Books By Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace 1st U.S.edition

The Blind Assassin 1st U.S. edition

The Robber Bride 1st trade edition in U.S.

Good Bones and Simple Murders 1st edition


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