Alias Grace: A Read-Along, Part 1

Today we are posting our general and early impressions of the novel with NO spoilers. So even if you aren't participating in the read-along, feel free to read on!

According to my Goodreads, I have read 51% of this novel so far. If I had to classify this novel from the amount I've read so far, I'd call it part historical fiction, part physiological mystery. Alias Grace follows Grace Marks, a 16-year-old Canadian housemaid who is convicted of the murder of her employer and his mistress. The novel takes place in the mid 1800's and lays out Grace's past and the controversy surrounding her trail; many believed her to be innocent while others vehemently encouraged her incarceration. Grace herself claims to have no memory of the night these murders took place. The story* is told in a double narrative with chapters alternating from Grace's story, to the point of view of Dr. Simon Jordon, the doctor who is interviewing her in hopes of bringing her memories of the crime to the surface.

What struck me from the start was the first person narrative from Grace herself. Atwood rarely writes in a first person narrative and I have to say I am enjoying this departure. Grace's voice is dispassionate, yet compelling. However, I sense that Grace is not a trustworthy narrator, unreliable if you will. Since we aren't giving away spoilers I won't mention the details that led me to this hunch, but suffice it to say there are many suspicions that arise for me a reader.

Another notable aspect of the novel is it's structure. Between chapter sections there are epigraphs that consist of passages, poetry, and historical documents that offer further insight into the historical background of the case and reinforce themes and motifs that are prevalent in the narrative. Most notably, Atwood explores the politics behind cases such as Grace's and the role the media plays in the outcomes of these cases. From the start of the novel details of the case are ambiguous and the reader isn't told what to believe. We are left to make up our own mind, but given little (as of yet) concrete evidence and facts. There aren't many people left whose whereabouts are known with whom Dr. Simon can corroborate Grace's story which means that so far, we haven't been able to find out whether she is telling the truth or lying.

Although the novel is on the darker side and the subject matter quite serious, Atwood injects bits of humor throughout which adds to the fun of reading it. Of course the novel is beautify written, as I have come to expect any Atwood novel to be. Her passages glow with visceral details and eloquent prose.
"All the same, murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it - that word - musky and opressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it to myself: murderess, murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor."
All in all, so far this is a good read. It started off strong, staggered a bit (for me at least), but it's coming back around. The more I read, the more I don't want to put the book down. I hope that by the end of the novel we are given answers, but given the ambitiousness of the first half of the novel, I've got a sneaky feeling we may be left in the dark a bit.

Want to hear more? Visit Bookish Habits and Bookworm Meets Bookworm to read more initial thoughts! We will be posting our final thoughts of the novel Wednesday, May 30th. (I know there are a handful of others participating, so please let me know who you are so I can link you as well.)

*It is worth noting that although this is a work of fiction, there was a case that took place in Canada involving Grace Marks, a young woman tried for the murders of her employers and his mistress.


  1. Brenna,
    There you go.. putting me to shame. This review is great. I noted on Catherine's post that I haven't picked up nearly as much as you two have. I had a really time even getting my thoughts out. It seems like there are so many layers and I can't wrap my head around it all. The tone is also so distancing (if that makes sense) and so makes it even harder. This is just a testament to Margaret Atwood's genius.
    I've sensed that Grace is quite unreliable but can't put my finger on what has lead me to this conclusion. And I'm finding Simon's character a little more bearable. Can't wait to wrap it up and see what you guys have to say!

    1. One of the reasons I don't trust Grace is that she has admitted once or twice that she has changed some details when telling Simon parts of the story because she doesn't think he would like them, or she is afraid he will judge her. I've also noticed there is a reoccurring theme, especially when Atwood is describing dream sequences, of things turning out to be something else than what they seemed at first glance. One specific scene I remembered from the beginning is when she saw these lovely flowers only to get closer to them and realize they were made of cloth. It seems this thread artificiality is prevalent throughout.

      Also - Your review is great! I did NOT put you to shame! :) And I'm glad Simon is growing on you.

    2. Brenna,
      Ok, I have noticed this. You make a point. Sometimes the narrative is a little confusing because I'm not sure if she's actually expressing parts of the story to Simon, or if the reader is trapped in her head. Does that make sense? I'm sure it does.
      It's all so complex!
      Thanks for the kind words but your review covers so much. It's nice to see the things you miss though throughout the read. Imagine what you do miss when you don't read with others!

    3. I know what you mean with Grace's story - sometimes she explains that she is telling it to Simon, and other times it's just kind of told, so we aren't sure if it's a memory of hers she is just thinking about or if she is sitting down with Simon relating it to him.

      As far as things we don't catch - there is probably a LOT of little details I don't catch when reading on my own. I have to say that I am reading this novel a lot more closely than I probably would if I were just reading it on my own and not with a read-along, just because I want to have things to discuss :) When I'm reading on my own I will usually underline passages I like and that's it, but with this one I've been taking notes in the margins and kind of reviewing those every now and then.

  2. I love your noting of Grace as an unreliable narrator and why - I hadn't made that connection, especially with the dreams, but you might be dead on! I don't remember enough of the outcome to say for sure, but she definitely purposefully deceives Simon, often playing dumb, although I hadn't noticed her changing details of the narrative of her past yet, but I may not have gotten there or missed it.

    It's true that the novel fills in the gaps in the known historical narrative with fiction, and I love that. I read somewhere that Atwood stayed true to what was known by historical accounts, but where there was only speculation, she felt free to fill in the blanks. Apparently Susanna Moodie, who is quoted quite often at the beginning of sections, turned out to be quite the unreliable storyteller herself, going more for the sensational account of Marks than for the truth.