The year is 1843, the place is Ontario, Canada and the victims are Thomas Kimner and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. Thomas had been shot whilst Nancy had been strangled. James McDermott, Thomas Kimner’s stable hand and Grace Marks his maid were apprehended trying to escape to America and put on trial for murder. James McDermott was hanged whilst Grace was imprisoned for life. These are the facts that Margaret Atwood uses as the base of her multi-faceted novel to bring Grace’s story to life, whether her version comes close to the truth the reader will have to decide.
“I have of course fictionalized historical events (as did many commentators on this case who claimed to be writing history). I have not changed any known facts, although the written accounts are so contradictory that few facts emerge as unequivocally ‘known.’”
By the time we meet her Grace has been imprisoned for quite some time. A model prisoner she is engaged as a maid to the Governor of the prison where she is being held. Petitions for her release have been a feature of those who protest her innocence but one man, the fictional Dr Simon Jordan wants to use her to explore her sanity, he has a goal to open a private clinic and a case study that gets attention could help him along this road. But is or was Grace ever insane? Why else would a young maid suddenly turn on her employers and become a notorious murderess? Or is there other elements to the story that the Victorian values of the day could not or would not see?
It is the conversation that Grace has with Dr Jordan that gives us her background, the long arduous journey from Dublin, the trials of living with a feckless father and younger siblings to care for and Grace’s ‘escape’ into working life as a maid, with friends who teach her the ways of the world. No one can say Grace’s story is anything but captivating and it’s bolstered by the picture of Grace recounting it whilst stitching at the table in the Governor’s house. Grace explains to Dr Jordan about the quilts that every young woman should have before she marries, the stories behind the different patterns these objects that were in every household having their own stories to tell. And of course the Doctor doesn’t know what is true and we are reminded of the uncertainty of the narrative by some fairly nifty switches from the first to the third person, denoting thoughts and words within the text itself. This gives the narrative a nebulous feel, the truth surely lies somewhere within the book, but it may be you have to decide where.
I was enchanted not only by Grace’s own story but the way that she uncovers the lives of many other women in the course of her conversations with the good Doctor. From her mother, to her friend and fellow maid Mary Whitney and Nancy the Housekeeper and mistress of Thomas Kimner then up the ranks to the daughters of the Governor who still covet a quilt for their own dowry but will have someone else carry out the minute stitching for them. Each is worthy of a story in their own right leaving me stuffed full of life-like characters by the time I turned the last page on Grace Marks and her story.
Alias Grace was my sixteenth read for my 20 Books of Summer 2017 challenge, a fine example of a true crime being used as inspiration for a novel, and a highly accomplished one at that.