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Book Review: "Alias Grace" by Margaret Atwood

More of a journalist by education, Jennifer Branton does the occasional ramble in the form of fiction.


Murdered at the Hands of an Unreliable Narrator

The facts remain in the Margaret Atwood novel Alias Grace and its Netflix series of the same title; Nancy Montgomery and Thomas Kinnear have died in murder most foul at the hands of their employees Grace Marks and McDermott in their home in Canada. McDermott is hung for his involvement in the crimes, Grace first institutionalized and then jailed for her involvement.

The novel centers around Grace and her unreliable narrative told through herself, and her Dr Simon Jordan, who is tasked with finding out if Grace is faking her false memory of the events that took place. Is she a victim herself? Did Grace manipulate everyone as a pawn in her revenge on Kinnear and Nancy?

What I love about this novel is in typical Margaret Atwood style, everything in this story is up for interpretation. I had binge watched the series on Netflix with my father-in-law on New Years Day and we can to the conclusion that Grace had manipulated everyone from the start playing human chess with her victims as she lined them up for demise.

On a read through of the novel though, I was more under the impression that maybe Grace was actually mentally ill and perhaps unaware of how her actions and intentions had pushed McDermott to do the killings at her bidding. This read through brought the idea that maybe she has a split personality disorder as discussed by the medical professionals, but unless one of her personalities was downright playing Dr. Simon for a fool, maybe Grace herself didn't know what she was doing at the time of the murders?

Sent away from her home at a young age after the family fled for Canada, Grace claims that she was sent off to find work by her father who struggled to take care of their large family after her mother's death. Grace alleges abuse at his hands and takes work as a servant for family after family. Her father comes several times to take her wages and eventually sends her next oldest sister. The father in great debt eventually flees and a debt collector comes to Grace looking to take her wages only to be chased off by her closest friend among the maids, a young woman named Mary.

Mary dies early on in the book at the hands of a doctor performing a botched abortion after the man that she had been engaged to leaves her and says he doesn't want the child. Grace, wakes up next to Mary's body in the bed they share in the attic and from that moment it is first described that Grace is concerned that Mary's soul didn't get to leave the room after her demise because of a closed window and instead went into her as a vessel.

Grace is eventually moved to another employer, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper and secret lover Nancy. From the first moment, Grace doesn't feel comfortable in the home. Nancy seems jealous and suspicious of her and the other servant McDermott has a frosty demeanor towards her when she shows no sexual interest.

The Kinnear home also has a young boy named Jamie Walsh, the son of a neighbor that helps out with errands and is the only friend that Grace makes at this home, though she accuses Jamie of having a crush on her.

Grace finds out that Nancy is pregnant by Kinnear and she is afraid to tell him. Nancy is also suspicious after a comment by Kinnear about Grace's beauty that he will push her aside for the younger woman and tells Kinnear that she wants both of ther servants replaces, Kinnear kindly reminding Nancy she is also paid help in the home.

Grace and McDermott begin to discuss how they will murder Nancy before she can have them fired next time Kinnear leaves for a few days. Here is where the story begins to be fuzzy.

Grace admits several times she just tells Dr Jordan what he wants to hear and is working the system to be found innocent and get out of jail, which she eventually does.

Grace has several versions of the events ranging from no clear memory to being possessed by Mary- who no real evidence of her actual existence in the book is given except for Grace's memories of her. Could Mary just have been another personality?

It is also hinted at that Grace concocted the idea to murder and rob the Kinnear household when a peddler friend who was passing through with his wares stopped to talk one day about how he was studying hypnotism. According to one version of Grace's truth, Jeremiah the Peddler had asked her to take off with him to America and she had decided against this after what happened with Mary as the example of how men can betray your trust.

When it is later suggested to Dr Jordan to try to hypnotize Grace before the board of the Governor to gain more information on the case, it is none other than Jeremiah now called Jerome Du Pont, that does the procedure in which Grace reveals her true personality as Mary.

Grace is later released into the custody of none other than Jamie Walsh, the key witness that put her away for the crimes years before.

Is this too coincidental?

How much of the events in Alias Grace one actually believes is open for interpretation each read.

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Evidence For A Split Personaltiy

Alias Grace plants the seed that maybe the entire story is about Grace having a split personality disorder that manifested as Mary from the time she was sent away by her father to take work.

Grace claims abuse at the hands of her father after her mother's death and blames Grace for not being able to care for all the younger children- if that is to be believed as again, no one later in the story has met any of the people mentioned and only knows about her early life from Grace's own reflections.

Only one home where Grace worked before, is actually confirmed as Nancy had met Grace while she was working at the inn. The entire backstory of where Grace had worked previously and the death of Mary from the abortion could have been completely fabricated to hide her true identity.

Even in the story of Mary was truth, Grace says she was told by others to have taken on the identity of Mary for hours after her death and been asking "Where is Grace?"

Grace says she felt the soul of Mary enter her on the morning of her death when the window hadn't been opened to let her soul out.

Grace was known to be cold and calculating, vicious at times biting keepers in the jail and in the asylum where she was first sent about her severe anxiety and panic attacks. Grace claims this was result of sexual abuse when she was locked up but was it just that she couldn't come to terms with events when she was the other personality?

During her examination before the Governor, when "Jerome Du Pont", really Jeremiah the Peddler, asked Grace about the events she claimed that Grace had blacked out but Mary had known all about what had taken place and then even proceeded to speak as Nancy for a period of time.

If Mary was real, maybe Grace adopted her personality to not feel so alone as the events of the book unfolded and later took in the personality of Nancy?

Was it really mental illness or was the paranormal at play?

Evident for Planning the Murders With Jeremiah

Putting the most interesting spin on Alias Grace is the notion that Grace planned the murders from the moment Jeremiah came to the Kinnear home.Jeremiah had met Grace through the maids at the home where both Mary and Grace were employed. Through Grace's memory other people interacted with Mary, including Jeremiah the Peddler, who later found Grace again at the Kinnear residence when she was employed. Grace and Jeremiah were both approached by McDermott in the kitchen where they were talking over his wares. Jealous of another man in the home, McDermott told Grace that her visitor had to leave and that their master wouldn't approve.

Could it have been in this discussion that rather than Grace's early narrative that she claims Jeremiah had asked her to go away with him been about how to murder the inhabitants of the home and rob them? Could it have been because McDermott came in to pester them that Grace had decided to plant the false seed of saying they were to be fired so they should kill Kinnear and Nancy. Was McDermott playing into their plans?

It sure seems so in a letter that was later sent to Dr Jordan after Grace's release from jail into the custody of Jamie Walsh. Grace admits she told many fabrications to get the outcome she thought people would expect of her and even details making a quilt made from a kerchief that had belonged the Mary, the dress that she had stolen from Nancy after her death, and her prison dress to bind them all together for ever.

If you read from this angle, Grace planted every idea from talking McDermott into the murders, and having Dr Jordan find Jeremiah in his hypnotist persona to vow to her innocence and get her out of the jail.

The only question is, if Grace Marks was smart enough to play all the sides against the middle and premeditate the murders, why would she get caught unless it again was a show to try to claim true innocence after the execution of McDermott for the murders.


Evidence For a Victim of Circumstance

Perhaps Grace Marks was the most unfortunate woman.

Faced with a cruel father that sent her out to earn her own way after the death of her mother, Grace already downtrodden from early life was further victimized as she worked in the homes of many as a maid.

If the death of Mary had really happened, that would definitely have left a mark on her psyche. What if Grace herself had invented the personality of Mary out of her own loneliness and Mary's situation with an unrequited love and the abortion were actually events that happened to Grace but she protected her mind by saying it happened to Mary and then killed off this personality in her mind.

If Grace was already mentally unstable, being sent to the Kinnear home where Nancy didn't like her from the start and saw Grace as a rival only furthered Grace being taken advantage of because of her station in life.

Perhaps like Nancy, McDermott also saw weaknesses in Grace and preyed on her in the same manner.

If true then Grace was actually falsely sent to the asylum and then jail for just being a witness to a murder that she was bullied into partaking in to keep MCDermott from killing her next.

I find this highly unlikely though going back to her possibly true motivations and confessions in the letter sent to Dr Jordan.

Alias Grace is a fascinating read that can be taken so many way depending on which side of Grace Marks you actually believe.

A series based on the novel is currently streaming on Netflix.

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