I first read Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace shortly after it was published. I’ve always considered it one of my three Atwood favourites, together with The Handmaid’s Tale and the classic Surfacing (both of which, by the way, are on my 1001 Books bucket list and will be read and reviewed here). Reading it again twenty years later, I’m not so sure.
Based on true events, Alias Grace imagines a series of meetings between a celebrated murderess and a doctor specializing in the field of mental illness. The year is 1859. Grace Marks, a one-time domestic servant, is 16 years into a life sentence in Kingston Penitentiary for assisting in the murder of her former employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Her co-accused, James McDermott, was hanged; Grace’s sentence was commuted at the last minute to life in prison.
Grace has always claimed to have no memory of the crime, although she signed a detailed – and rather lurid – confession at the time. Dr. Simon Jordan has come to interview her, hoping to discover if she has any memory of the crime, and hoping that what he learns will enable him to learn more about the treatment of the mentally ill. During these interviews we learn Grace’s story – her childhood, her life as a young girl in domestic service, and her relationships with those who were murdered. We also learn a great deal about life in Canada in the mid-19th Century: dressmaking, laundry chores, cooking, the craze for spiritualism and hypnosis – or mesmerism, as it was called. All these details, well-researched, give the story its substance. But they also tend, at times, to overwhelm the narrative.
Having spent a decade or so writing and researching my own work of historical fiction, I’m drawn to the details. I’m interested in which vegetables grew in the kitchen garden – the shirts and shoes and pots and pans sold by Jeremiah the peddler – the variety of buttons available to the dressmaker. Even for me, though, the minutiae of specifics is too much. I find myself begging the author to just get on with the story.
The problem with the interview-as-storytelling device, as with the diary-as-storytelling device, is that it often just doesn’t seem plausible. It requires a huge leap of imagination to accept that someone would remember the details of her dreams so many years later… or what the weather was like every morning… or what her employer ate for breakfast. Really? you find yourself asking. I can’t remember what I ate yesterday, let alone 16 years ago.
It often occurs to me that there comes a point in the career of well-known, successful writers when they stop getting edited. I’ve seen this with writers I love, like Ian McEwan and Anne Tyler, and I’m certain it happens with writers I haven’t read, like Nora Roberts and James Patterson. I really feel it’s the case with Margaret Atwood. At 460 pages, Alias Grace is a lyrical work of fiction, well-deserving of the Giller Prize it won when published. But in my humble opinion it would have benefited from some judicious snipping.