A macabre tale of scandal and murder in the 19th century, the story of Grace Marks was all over the newspapers of the time. It is this dividing person of Grace Marks that inspired Alias Grace.
At the beginning of the book, Margaret Atwood’s Grace starts to tell us how over time she has been called a monster, a halfwit, an innocent child, a seductress, etc. and ends her monologue by speculating how she can possibly be all of these things. She though does imbibe all of these qualities at once. This I felt gives a truer portrait almost a century later of the real woman on whom this story is based.
Apart from weaving a tale which is part fiction, part truth, Atwood brings many issues to the forefront. Chief among them is how news media even at that time distorted the truth. People believe what they want to believe and this unfortunate truth must have persecuted countless individuals as it continues to do so.
Atwood brings across this sense of being trapped. Imagine your every word, every action is put under a public microscope. It is like being on a reality show where the camera is always on you. Everything you do can be misconstrued and the penalty is death or life imprisonment instead of mere elimination.
The other side of the story told by the fictional doctor Simon Jordan makes you wonder how much of Grace’s tale is true. At the end you are left to wonder or given the freedom to decide for yourself about what might be true and what might not.
But that is not all Alias Grace is, it isn’t just a murder mystery with a vague ending. It is the story of women, the story of class differences especially among women, the story of the stigma attached to mental illnesses and the consequent ill treatment of the mentally ill, the story of an unjust and biased system that relies heavily on personal prejudices and agendas.
The real Grace Marks was pardoned after being in prison for over 30 years. There is no trace of her after she left prison. Atwood’s end is a fictional one that she probably hoped for the real woman.
But at the end of the book, for me, the Grace Marks in Atwood’s book seemed to have evolved, from a clueless teenager to a clever player of the game of perceptions. Over the years, she seemed to have learned the art of playing the part expected of her and hide the truth so deep that maybe she herself lost any knowledge of it.