Alias Grace

( 46 )

Overview

Margaret Atwood takes us back in time and into the life and mind of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the nineteenth century. Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer, the wealthy Thomas Kinnear, and of Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence after a stint in Toronto's lunatic asylum, Grace herself claims to have no memory of the murders. Dr. Simon ...
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Overview

Margaret Atwood takes us back in time and into the life and mind of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the nineteenth century. Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer, the wealthy Thomas Kinnear, and of Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence after a stint in Toronto's lunatic asylum, Grace herself claims to have no memory of the murders. Dr. Simon Jordan, an up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness, is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story, from her family's difficult passage out of Ireland into Canada, to her time as a maid in Thomas Kinnear's household. As he brings Grace closer and closer to the day she cannot remember, he hears of the turbulent relationship between Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery, and of the alarming behavior of Grace's fellow servant, James McDermott. Jordan is drawn to Grace, but he is also baffled by her. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories? Is Grace a female fiend, a bloodthirsty femme fatale? Or is she a victim of circumstances?
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Editorial Reviews

Paige Williams

The murders were shocking, and the accused parties became the subjects of obsession in 19th-century Canada. Could an "uncommonly pretty" servant girl named Grace Marks really have participated in the murders of her wealthy employer and his paramour housekeeper in 1843? Or did the stable hand act alone? The true story of Grace Marks has been told and retold over the years, but never as powerfully as in Margaret Atwood's new novel, Alias Grace, recently shortlisted for Britain's Booker Prize. The prolific Canadian writer weaves poems, newspaper accounts, book excerpts and letters into a narrative so vivid and engrossing you can smell the English shaving soap, see clean sheets flapping in the breeze.

Convicted of murder at 16, Grace is imprisoned for life. The story begins as Dr. Simon Jordan of Massachusetts comes to interview her in an attempt to understand the criminally insane. "Gone mad is what they say," Grace says, "and sometimes run mad, as if mad is a direction, like west." The earnest doctor is dominated by a mother who urges him to give up on helping lunatics, invest in sewing machines and marry a well-born woman. Grace — working class girl, murderess — comes to fascinate him.

Simon visits her regularly at the governor's house, where she works as a trustee. The story revolves around these meetings: Grace tells her story in her coy, perfunctory manner, and he scribbles notes, occasionally pulling out objects — a fresh apple, a candlestick — that might trigger a memory and reveal the truth. "What he wants is certainty." But Grace claims partial memory loss. Her story runs in and out of shadows, but never smack into what satisfies the doctor as truth. "It's as if I never existed, because no trace of me remains, I have left no marks," Grace says. "And that way I cannot be followed. It is almost the same as being innocent."

Both Grace and Simon are looking for their own truth, which, we ultimately discover, is ghostly, elusive — nothing the doctor can write neatly in his little ledger for himself or for her, or for posterity. Atwood makes their search a story for the ages. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In Atwood's latest, the notorious 19th-century murderess Grace Marks tells her story in a Toronto asylum. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Basing her new work on a sensational double murder that occurred in Canada in 1843, poet/novelist Atwood (e.g., The Robber Bride) has crafted a forceful tale that probes deep into the psychology of accused murderess Grace Marks even as it exposes the social conditions that made such a murder possible. Less caustically feminist than in some previous works but still concerned with the forces that have subjugated women throughout history, Atwood follows Grace from Ireland, which her feckless father is finally forced to depart; through the family's ocean voyage, on which her mother dies; to Canada, where she starts working as a servant at age 12 and befriends Mary Whitney, whose subsequent death from a botched abortion comes, perhaps quite literally, to haunt her. Grace ends up at the Kinnear household, where the master and his housekeeper-mistress are murdered by the stableman McDermott-supposedly with Grace's help. Grace herself has no recollection of the events, and young American doctor Simon Jordan works ceaselessly to uncover her memories and solve the puzzle of her guilt or innocence. That solution, when it finally arrives, is not wholly satisfying, and attentive readers will have surmised it well beforehand, but Atwood's compelling prose, fine attention to historical detail, and firm guidance of her story make the long trip to the book's end entirely worth the trouble. Highly recommended.
Library Journal
Basing her new work on a sensational double murder that occurred in Canada in 1843, poet/novelist Atwood (e.g., The Robber Bride) has crafted a forceful tale that probes deep into the psychology of accused murderess Grace Marks even as it exposes the social conditions that made such a murder possible. Less caustically feminist than in some previous works but still concerned with the forces that have subjugated women throughout history, Atwood follows Grace from Ireland, which her feckless father is finally forced to depart; through the family's ocean voyage, on which her mother dies; to Canada, where she starts working as a servant at age 12 and befriends Mary Whitney, whose subsequent death from a botched abortion comes, perhaps quite literally, to haunt her. Grace ends up at the Kinnear household, where the master and his housekeeper-mistress are murdered by the stableman McDermott-supposedly with Grace's help. Grace herself has no recollection of the events, and young American doctor Simon Jordan works ceaselessly to uncover her memories and solve the puzzle of her guilt or innocence. That solution, when it finally arrives, is not wholly satisfying, and attentive readers will have surmised it well beforehand, but Atwood's compelling prose, fine attention to historical detail, and firm guidance of her story make the long trip to the book's end entirely worth the trouble. Highly recommended.
School Library Journal
YA—In 1843, at the age of 16, Grace Marks, a recent Irish immigrant to Canada, was sentenced to life in prison as an accomplice in the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. The teen confessed to the crime early and later claimed no memory of the events. She was arrested in upstate New York, having run from her employer's house with the handyman, who was hanged for the crimes. Atwood became interested in the case, a true story, and added the involvement of Dr. Simon Jordan. This novel is set 16 years after the crime took place when Jordan, who is interested in the fledgling science of psychology, is recruited by a local Methodist minister intent on proving Grace's innocence to examine her and determine the "truth." Readers are made privy to innumerable details of daily life in that time and place. The concept is intriguing, and while YAs never actually learn the truth, they certainly become involved in Grace's history as well as Simon's bumbling attempts at independence from a domineering mother. Atwood may be playing a game with her readers, but it is one in which many will willingly participate for the fun and mystery while learning about life in colonial Canada. While long, this story reads quickly and all of the characters are compelling, different, and well developed.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
. . .if Grace manages to keep several people in her life simultaneously at bay and attracted to her, the reader, too, is part of her fascinated audience. For her narrative powers are what draw one through the intricate maze of Ms. Atwood's story and lead to the heart of its complex vision of human motive and self-awareness.
The New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
A fascinating elaboration—and somewhat of a departure for Atwood (The Robber Bride, 1993, etc.)—of the life of Grace Marks, one of Canada's more infamous killers.

As notorious as our own Lizzy Borden, Grace Marks was barely 16 when she and James McDermott were arrested in 1843 for the brutal murder of their employer Thomas Kinnear and his pregnant mistress/housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. The trial was a titillating sensation; McDermott was hanged, and Grace was given the dubious mercy of life imprisonment. Some felt her an innocent dupe, others thought her a cold-blooded murderer; the truth remains elusive. Atwood reimagines Grace's story, and with delicate skill all but replaces history with her chronicle of events.

Anchoring the narrative is the arrival of Dr. Simon Jordan, who has come to investigate the sanity of Grace after some 16 years of incarceration. A convert to the new field of psychiatry, Jordan is hoping to help Grace recover her memory of the murders, which she claims no recollection of. He begins by asking for her life story. Grace tells him of her first commission as a laundry maid in a grand house, and of her dear friend Mary, dead at 16 from a botched abortion. On she goes until she calmly relates the events that led up to the murders, and her attempted escape with McDermott afterward. Hypnotism finally "restores" her memory (or is Grace misleading Jordan?), with results that are both shocking and ambiguous.

Employing a variety of narratives—Grace's own, Dr. Jordan's, letters, newspaper accounts from the time, poems from the period, and the published confessions of the accused—a complex story is pieced together. The image of the patchwork quilt, used repeatedly in the novel, is a fitting metaphor for the multiplicity of truths that Grace exemplifies.

Through characteristically elegant prose and a mix of narrative techniques, Atwood not only crafts an eerie, unsettling tale of murder and obsession, but also a stunning portrait of the lives of women in another time.

From the Publisher
“Brilliantly realized, intellectually provocative and maddeningly suspenseful.”
Macleans

“Atwood confirms her status as the outstanding novelist of our age.”
Sunday Times (U.K.)

“Atwood not only crafts an eerie, unsettling tale of murder and obsession, but also a stunning portrait of the lives of women in another time.”
Kirkus Reviews

“A masterpiece…perhaps Atwood’s best, most important novel to date.”
Ottawa Citizen

“A great book of such wit, wisdom and dazzling storytelling that it leaves me in no doubt that Atwood is the most outstanding novelist currently writing in English.”
Sydney Morning Herald

“Atwood’s humor has never been slyer, her command of complex material more adept, her eroticism franker.…This is a stupendous performance. . . .”
Booklist

“[Atwood] has surpassed herself, writing with a glittering, singing intensity.…”
New York Review of Books

“Stunning.…Atwood is in perfect control. And her fusion of real events and fiction is as contemporary as it is ingenious.”
Calgary Herald

“A rare and splendid novel that pulls you in and won’t let go.…”
Washington Post Book World

“Atwood’s imaginative control of her period flows, irresistible and superb.…[She] has pushed the art to its extremes and the result is devastating. This, surely, is as far as a novel can go.”
Independent on Sunday (U.K.)

“Seductive, beautifully articulated.…Brilliantly conceived and executed.…”
San Francisco Chronicle

“Astonishing.…”
Financial Post

“A sublime read.…As satisfying as the best whodunit.”
London Free Press

“An absorbing and brilliantly told story.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385490443
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/28/1997
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 88,091
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Margaret  Atwood

Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa in 1939, and grew up in northern Quebec and Ontario, and later in Toronto. She has lived in numerous cities in Canada, the U.S., and Europe.

She is the author of more than forty books — novels, short stories, poetry, literary criticism, social history, and books for children. Atwood’s work is acclaimed internationally and has been published around the world. Her novels include The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye — both shortlisted for the Booker Prize; The Robber Bride, winner of the Trillium Book Award and a finalist for the Governor General’s Award; Alias Grace, winner of the prestigious Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy, and a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, the Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; The Blind Assassin, winner of the Booker Prize and a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; and Oryx and Crake, a finalist for The Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award, the Orange Prize, and the Man Booker Prize. Her most recent books of fiction are The Penelopiad, The Tent, and Moral Disorder. She is the recipient of numerous honours, such as The Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence in the U.K., the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature in the U.S., Le Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, and she was the first winner of the London Literary Prize. She has received honorary degrees from universities across Canada, and one from Oxford University in England.

Margaret Atwood lives in Toronto with novelist Graeme Gibson.

Biography

When Margaret Atwood announced to her friends that she wanted to be a writer, she was only 16 years old. It was Canada. It was the 1950s. No one knew what to think. Nonetheless, Atwood began her writing career as a poet. Published In 1964 while she was still a student at Harvard, her second poetry anthology, The Circle Game, was awarded the Governor General's Award, one of Canada's most esteemed literary prizes. Since then, Atwood has gone on to publish many more volumes of poetry (as well as literary criticism, essays, and short stories), but it is her novels for which she is best known.

Atwood's first foray into fiction was 1966's The Edible Woman, an arresting story about a woman who stops eating because she feels her life is consuming her. Grabbing the attention of critics, who applauded its startlingly original premise, the novel explored feminist themes Atwood has revisited time and time again during her long, prolific literary career. She is famous for strong, compelling female protagonists -- from the breast cancer survivor in Bodily Harm to the rueful artist in Cat's Eye to the fatefully intertwined sisters in her Booker Prize-winning novel The Blind Asassin.

Perhaps Atwood's most legendary character is Offred, the tragic "breeder" in what is arguably her most famous book, 1985's The Handmaid's Tale. Part fable, part science fiction, and part dystopian nightmare, this novel presented a harrowing vision of women's lives in an oppressive futuristic society. The Washington Post compared it (favorably) to George Orwell's iconic 1984.

As if her status as a multi-award-winning, triple-threat writer (fiction, poetry, and essays) were not enough, Atwood has also produced several children's books, including Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut (1995) and Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes (2003) -- delicious alliterative delights that introduce a wealth of new vocabulary to young readers.

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    1. Hometown:
      Toronto, Ontario
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 18, 1939
    2. Place of Birth:
      Ottawa, Ontario
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of Toronto, 1961; M.A. Radcliffe, 1962; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1967
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

1859.

I am sitting on the purple velvet settee in the Governor's parlour, the Governor's wife's parlour; it has always been the Governor's wife's parlour although it is not always the same wife, as they change them around according to the politics. I have my hands folded in my lap the proper way although I have no gloves. The gloves I would wish to have would be smooth and white, and would be without a wrinkle.

I am often in this parlour, clearing away the tea things and dusting the small tables and the long mirror with the frame of grapes and leaves around its and the pianoforte; and the tall clock that came from Europe, with the orange-gold sun and the silver moon, that go in and out according to the time of day and the week of the month. I like the clock best of anything in the parlour, although it measures time and I have too much of that on my hands already.

But I have never sat down on the settee before, as it is for the guests. Mrs. Alderman Parkinson said a lady must never sit in a chair a gentleman has just vacated, though she would not say why; but Mary Whitney said, Because, you silly goose, it's still warm from his bum; which was a coarse thing to say. So I cannot sit here without thinking of the ladylike bums that have sat on this very settee, all delicate and white, like wobbly softboiled eggs.

The visitors wear afternoon dresses with rows of buttons up their fronts, and stiff wire crinolines beneath. It's a wonder they can sit down at all, and when they walk, nothing touches their legs under the billowing skirts, except their shifts and stockings. They are like swans, drifting along on unseen feet; or else like the jellyfish in thewaters of the rocky harbour near our house, when I was little, before I ever made the long sad journey across the ocean. They were bell-shaped and ruffled, gracefully waving and lovely under the sea; but if they washed up on the beach and dried out in the sun there was nothing left of them. And that is what the ladies are like: mostly water.

There were no wire crinolines when I was first brought here. They were horsehair then, as the wire ones were not thought of. I have looked at them hanging in the wardrobes, when I go in to tidy and empty the slops. They are like birdcages; but what is being caged in? Legs, the legs of ladies; legs penned in so they cannot get out and go rubbing up against the gentlemen's trousers. The Governor's wife never says legs, although the newspapers said legs when they were talking about Nancy, with her dead legs sticking out from under the washtub.

It isn't only the jellyfish ladies that come. On Tuesdays we have the Woman Question, and the emancipation of this or that, with reform-minded persons of both sexes; and on Thursdays the Spiritualist Circle, for tea and conversing with the dead, which is a comfort to the Governor's wife because of her departed infant son. But mainly it is the ladies. They sit sipping from the thin cups, and the Governor's wife rings a little china bell. She does not like being the Governor's wife, she would prefer the Governor to be the governor of something other than a prison. The Governor had good enough friends to get him made the Governor, but not for anything else.

So here she is, and she must make the most of her social position and accomplishments, and although an object of fear, like a spider, and of charity as well, I am also one of the accomplishments. I come into the room and curtsy and move about, mouth straight, head bent, and I pick up the cups or set them down, depending; and they stare without appearing to, out from under their bonnets.

The reason they want to see me is that I am a celebrated murderess. Or that is what has been written down. When I first saw it I was surprised because they say Celebrated Singer and Celebrated Poetess and Celebrated Spiritualist and Celebrated Actress, but what is there to celebrate about murder? All the same, Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word--musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself. Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.

Murderer is merely brutal. It's like a hammer, or a lump of metal. I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices.

Sometimes when I am dusting the mirror with the grapes I look at myself in it, although I know it is vanity. In the afternoon light of the parlour my skin is a pale mauve, like a faded bruise, and my teeth are greenish. I think of all the things that have been written about me--that I am an inhuman female demon, that I am an innocent victim of a blackguard forced against my will and in danger of my own life, that I was too ignorant to know how to act and that to hang me would be judicial murder, that I am fond of animals, that I am very handsome with a brilliant complexion, that I have blue eyes, that I have green eyes, that I have auburn and also brown hair, that I am tall and also not above the average height, that I am well and decently dressed, that I robbed a dead woman to appear so, that I am brisk and smart about my work, that I am of a sullen disposition with a quarrelsome temper, that I have the appearance of a person rather above my humble station, that I am a good girl with a pliable nature and no harm is told of me, that I am cunning and devious, that I am soft in the head and little better than an idiot. And I wonder, how can I be all of these different things at once?

It was my own lawyer, Mr. Kenneth MacKenzie, Esq., who told them I was next door to an idiot. I was angry with him over that, but he said it was by far my best chance and I should not appear to be too intelligent. He said he would plead my case to the utmost of his ability, because whatever the truth of the matter I was little more than a child at the time, and he supposed it came down to free will and whether or not one held with it. He was a kind gentleman although I could not make head nor tail of much of what he said, but it must have been good pleading. The newspapers wrote that he performed heroically against overwhelming odds. Though I don't know why they called it pleading, as he was not pleading but trying to make all of the witnesses appear immoral or malicious, or else mistaken.

I wonder if he ever believed a word I said.


When I have gone out of the room with the tray, the ladies look at the Governor's wife's scrapbook. Oh imagine, I feel quite faint, they say, and You let that woman walk around loose in your house, you must have nerves of iron, my own would never stand it. Oh well one must get used to such things in our situation, we are virtually prisoners ourselves you know, although one must feel pity for these poor benighted creatures, and after all she was trained as a servant, and it's as well to keep them employed, she is a wonderful seamstress, quite deft and accomplished, she is a great help in that way especially with the girls' frocks, she has an eye for trimmings, and under happier circumstances she could have made an excellent milliner's assistant.

Although naturally she can be here only during the day, I would not have her in the house at night. You are aware that she has spent time in the Lunatic Asylum in Toronto, seven or eight years ago it was, and although she appears to be perfectly recovered you never know when they may get carried away again, sometimes she talks to herself and sings out loud in a most peculiar manner. One cannot take chances, the keepers conduct her back in the evenings and lock her up properly, otherwise I wouldn't be able to sleep a wink. Oh I don't blame you, there is only so far one can go in Christian charity, a leopard cannot change its spots and no one could say you have not done your duty and shown a proper feeling.

The Governor's wife's scrapbook is kept on the round table with the silk shawl covering it, branches like vines intertwined, with flowers and red fruit and blue birds, it is really one large tree and if you stare at it long enough the vines begin to twist as if a wind is blowing them. It was sent from India by her eldest daughter who is married to a missionary, which is not a thing I would care to do myself. You would be sure to die early, if not from the rioting natives as at Cawnpore with horrid outrages committed on the persons of respectable gentlewomen, and a mercy they were all slaughtered and put out of their misery, for only think of the shame; then from the malaria, which turns you entirely yellow, and you expire in raving fits; in any case before you could turn around, there you would be, buried under a palm tree in a foreign clime. I have seen pictures of them in the book of Eastern engravings the Governor's wife takes out when she wishes to shed a tear.

On the same round table is the stack of Godey's Ladies' Books with the fashions that come up from the States, and also the Keepsake Albums of the two younger daughters. Miss Lydia tells me I am a romantic figure; but then the two of them are so young they hardly know what they are saying. Sometimes they pry and tease; they say, Grace, why don't you ever smile or laugh, we never see you smiling, and I say I suppose Miss I have gotten out of the way of it. My face won't bend in that direction any more. But if I laughed out loud I might not be able to stop; and also it would spoil their romantic notion of me. Romantic people are not supposed to laugh, I know that much from looking at the pictures.

The daughters put all kinds of things into their albums, little scraps of cloth from their dresses, little snippets of ribbon, pictures cut from magazines--the Ruins of Ancient Rome, the Picturesque Monasteries of the French Alps, Old London Bridge, Niagara Falls in summer and in winter, which is a thing I would like to see as all say it is very impressive, and portraits of Lady This and Lord That from England. And their friends write things in their graceful handwriting, To Dearest Lydia from your Eternal Friend, Clara Richards; To Dearest Marianne In Memory of Our Splendid Picnic on the Shores of Bluest Lake Ontario. And also poems:

As round about the sturdy Oak
Entwines the loving Ivy Vine,
My Faith so true, I pledge to You,
'Twill evermore be none but Thine, Your Faithful Laura.

Or else:

Although from you I far must roam,
Do not be broken hearted,
We two who in the Soul are One
Are never truly parted. Your Lucy.

This young lady was shortly afterwards drowned in the Lake when her ship went down in a gale, and nothing was ever found but her box with her initials done in silver nails; it was still locked, so although damp, nothing spilt out, and Miss Lydia was given a scarf out of it as a keepsake.

When I am dead and in my grave
And all my bones are rotten,
When this you see, remember me,
Lest I should be forgotten.

That one is signed, I will always be with you in Spirit, Your loving 'Nancy', Hannah Edmonds, and I must say the first time I saw that, it gave me a fright, although of course it was a different Nancy. Still, the rotten bones. They would be, by now. Her face was all black by the time they found her, there must have been a dreadful smell. It was so hot then, it was July, still she went off surprisingly soon, you'd think she would have kept longer in the dairy, it is usually cool down there. I am certainly glad I was not present, as it would have been very distressing.

I don't know why they are all so eager to be remembered. What good will it do them? There are some things that should be forgotten by everyone, and never spoken of again.

The Governor's wife's scrapbook is quite different. Of course she is a grown woman and not a young girl, so although she is just as fond of remembering, what she wants to remember is not violets or a picnic. No Dearest and Love and Beauty, no Eternal Friends, none of those things for her; what it has instead is all the famous criminals in it--the ones that have been hanged, or else brought here to be penitent, because this is a Penitentiary and you are supposed to repent while in it, and you will do better if you say you have done so, whether you have anything to repent of or not.

The Governor's wife cuts these crimes out of the newspapers and pastes them in; she will even write away for old newspapers with crimes that were done before her time. It is her collection, she is a lady and they are all collecting things these days, and so she must collect something, and she does this instead of pulling up ferns or pressing flowers, and in any case she likes to horrify her acquaintances.

So I have read what they put in about me. She showed the scrapbook to me herself, I suppose she wanted to see what I would do; but I've learnt how to keep my face still, I made my eyes wide and flat, like an owl's in torchlight, and I said I had repented in bitter tears, and was now a changed person, and would she wish me to remove the tea things now; but I've looked in there since, many times, when I've been in the parlour by myself.

A lot of it is lies. They said in the newspaper that I was illiterate, but I could read some even then. I was taught early by my mother, before she got too tired for it, and I did my sampler with leftover thread, A is for Apple, B is for Bee; and also Mary Whitney used to read with me, at Mrs. Alderman Parkinson's, when we were doing the mending; and I've learnt a lot more since being here, as they teach you on purpose. They want you to be able to read the Bible, and also tracts, as religion and thrashing are the only remedies for a depraved nature and our immortal souls must be considered. It is shocking how many crimes the Bible contains. The Governor's wife should cut them all out and paste them into her scrapbook.

They did say some true things. They said I had a good character; and that was so, because nobody had ever taken advantage of me, although they tried. But they called James McDermott my paramour. They wrote it down, right in the newspaper. I think it is disgusting to write such things down.

That is what really interests them--the gentlemen and the ladies both. They don't care if I killed anyone, I could have cut dozens of throats, it's only what they admire in a soldier, they'd scarcely blink. No: was I really a paramour, is their chief concern, and they don't even know themselves whether they want the answer to be no or yes.

I'm not looking at the scrapbook now, because they may come in at any moment. I sit with my rough hands folded, eyes down, staring at the flowers in the Turkey carpet. Or they are supposed to be flowers. They have petals the shape of the diamonds on a playing card; like the cards spread out on the table at Mr. Kinnear's, after the gentlemen had been playing the night before. Hard and angular. But red, a deep thick red. Thick strangled tongues.

It's not the ladies expected today, it's a doctor. He's writing a book, the Governor's wife likes to know people who are writing books, books with forward-looking aims, it shows that she is a liberal-minded person with advanced views, and science is making
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Introduction

In Alias Grace, bestselling author Margaret Atwood has written her most captivating, disturbing, and ultimately satisfying work since The Handmaid's Tale. She takes us back in time and into the life of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the nineteenth century.

Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders.

Dr. Simon Jordan, an up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness, is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories? Is Grace a female fiend? A bloodthirsty femme fatale? Or is she the victim of circumstances?

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Foreword

1. This novel is rooted in physical reality, on one hand, and floats free of it, on the other, as Atwood describes physical things in either organic, raw terms (the “tongue-coloured settee”) or with otherworldly, more ephemeral images (the laundry like “angels rejoicing, although without any heads”). How do such descriptions deepen and reinforce the themes in the novel?

2. The daily and seasonal rhythm of household work is described in detail. What role does this play in the novel in regard to its pace?

3. Atwood employs two main points of view and voices in the novel. Do you trust one more than the other? As the story progresses, does Grace’s voice (in dialogue) in Simon’s part of the story change? If so, how and why?

4. Grace’s and Simon’s stories are linked, and they have a kinship on surface and deeper levels. For instance, they both eavesdrop or spy as children, and later, each stays in a house that would have been better left sooner or not entered at all. Discuss other similarities or differences in the twinning of their stories and their psyches.

5. Atwood offers a vision of the dual nature of people, houses, appearances, and more. How does she make use of darkness and light, and to what purpose?

6. In a letter to his friend Dr. Edward Murchie, Simon Jordan writes, “Not to know -- to snatch at hints and portents, at intimations, at tantalizing whispers -- it is as bad as being haunted.” How are the characters in this story affected by the things they don’t know?

7. How and why does Atwood conceal Grace’s innocence or guilt throughout the novel? At what points doesone become clearer than the other and at what points does it become unclear?

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

1. This novel is rooted in physical reality, on one hand, and floats free of it on the other, as Atwood describes physical things in either organic, raw terms (the "tongue-colored settee") or with otherworldly, more ephemeral images (the laundry like "angels rejoicing, although without any heads"). How do such descriptions deepen and reinforce the themes in the novel?

2. The daily and seasonal rhythm of household work is described in detail. What role does this play in the novel in regard to its pace?

3. Atwood employs two main points of view and voices in the novel. Do you trust one more than the other? As the story progresses, does Grace's voice (in dialogue) in Simon's part of the story change? If so, how and why?

4. Grace's and Simon's stories are linked and they have a kinship on surface and deeper levels. For instance, they both eavesdrop or spy as children, and later, each stays in a house that would have been better left sooner or not entered at all. Discuss other similarities or differences in the twinning of their stories and their psyches.

5. Atwood offers a vision of the dual nature of people, houses, appearances, and more. How does she make use of darkness and light, and to what purpose?

6. In a letter to his friend Dr. Edward Murchie, Simon Jordan writes, "Not to know--to snatch at hints and portents, at intimations, at tantalizing whispers--it is as bad as being haunted." How are the characters in this story affected by the things they don't know?

7. How and why does Atwood conceal Grace's innocence or guilt throughout the novel? At what points does one become clearer than the other and at what points does it become unclear?

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 46 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 46 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2004

    A True Classic

    I read a review, maybe on the cover, that claimed this was written like a classic with the pace of a modern novel. That is exactly how I felt about this book. The writing was incredible. I felt completely sucked into that time period as I read. One thing that did help me anticipate the ending was that I read the Afterward before reading book. I really think it helped me not go overboard with all the possible ways it could end, and I was very satisfied with how Atwood chose to end the story. The pacing was a little slow at first, but once Grace began telling her story I could not put it down.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 2, 2011

    Alias Grace

    The worst part of the book for me was how the author wrote it and her style. I always got confused on who it was talking about or who was doing the talking. Also, there were parts that seemed like they didn't have a purpose in being in the book, such as when the narrator or Grace would randomly talk about certain people. It seemed more like rambling random facts that weren't necessarily important to the plot. As far as the end went, I'm still not sure as to if she actually killed them or not. It talks about her experiences throughout the book but never if she was actually guilty or not reguardless of what other people thought. Even though the style of writing was a little weird, it made the book fun to read.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 8, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Beautiful display of a writer's craft.

    The beauty of Alias Grace lies not within the plot, which is mysterious and based on a true story, nor within the voices of the characters, but within the artistry that Atwood has demonstrated as the true craft of a writer. The ability to take a story and turn it into something more, create a world based on ours, where the characters step from the page.

    Atwood based Alias Grace on a true story. The celebrated murderess, young Grace Marks, was a real person in Canada in 1843. She was arrested, along with a man named James McDermott, accused of murdering their employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his pregnant housekeeper-mistress Nancy Montgomery. Grace told three different versions of the murder throughout the trial and was sentenced to life in prison, while McDermott hung. In the novel, Doctor Simon Jordan makes it his mission to lead Grace through her life leading up the day of the murders. The question remains: was Grace telling the truth in any of her questionable versions? Did she knowingly participate in the deaths of two innocents and one unborn child? Why can't she seem to remember the events, but remember dressing in the dead woman's clothing and escaping to the States?

    Margaret Atwood's novel is based on historical documentation and news articles which are prevalent throughout the book and serve to ground the novel, but they also uplift the story into a living tale. No one knew for certain if Grace was an innocent bystander, or a devilish accomplice. Petitions for her release are routinely submitted and rejected. The power of this novel is that I want Atwood's version to be the real thing, but that means I question Grace's motives; is she really as naive as she seems? I am still not sure what I want of her. I want her to be innocent, but I want her to be guilty. I want her to escape with Jeremiah the Peddler, but live happily ever after with a husband and normal life. I want Mary Whitney to live, but I want her to have never lived.

    Alias Grace is a dark, intriguing, and haunting mystery which stays with us after the last page and for that I must give it 5 stars. I encourage you to read it, and formulate your own thoughts on Grace Marks.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 14, 2010

    Alias Grace Literary Criticism

    Margaret Atwood's stunning, attention stealing novel is a story of suspense. I found myself unable to put it down once I began reading. The novel's contents that I found myself imagining all seemed very realistic to me. So overall I believe Alias Grace is a wonderful story, also a fictional re-telling of a murder case from Canada in the 1800's.
    The story began 8 years into Grace's imprisonment with a story she told her doctor drawing me in. Why was she locked away, I kept asking myself as I read, and at the age of sixteen? What could someone so young have done? Throughout the book, Atwood, from Grace's view speaking to her doctor, Dr. Jordan, tells us Grace's story. Grace chooses to tell the most important events of her life from her earliest memories leading up to the predicament she seems to have no remembrance of, the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and Nancy Montgomery, his house keeper and mistress. Dr. Jordan hopes that talking to her about the events leading up to the murder that she'll remember and everyone will finally know if she's innocent or guilty. After finding that the talking didn't help decipher Grace's innocence Dr. Jordan decides to let another form of doctor, Dr. Dupont, hypnotize Grace to ask her questions and finally find whether she is innocent or not.
    Throughout this book the main theme I seen was sex. Mary Whitney, a good friend of Grace's, became pregnant and the father denied it and threw her some money. She had a type of an "abortion" and died the day after. Nancy and Thomas were suspected of sex also because Nancy was found to be pregnant after her death. Mrs. Humphrey, Dr. Jordan's landlady, becomes his mistress, and they seem to have a sexual connection only at night when he returns from his long days. On Grace's birthday, Grace and Jamie Walsh spent time together in the orchard, on Thomas Kinnear's land, and when Grace returned she was accused by McDermott of having sex. Then, in one of McDermott's confessions it is said that Grace promised sex for his help in the murders.
    Margaret Atwood described things well and used a great amount of poetic devices. One of my favorite descriptions was of Thomas Kinnear's when Grace was first arriving she says, "At last we were going past his orchard and up his driveway, which was curved and about a hundred yards long, and ran between two lines of maple trees of medium size. There was the house at the end of the drive, with a veranda along the front of it and white pillars, a big house but not as big as Mrs. Alderman Parkinson's." (208) I chose this description because it was one that I could easily imagine and it didn't go on and on with unnecessary adjectives. One thing I observed of Atwood's use of poetic devices is that she liked to use poems and rhymes to explain things. One grace remembered from her childhood, one she picked up from her father who obviously didn't like being married, was:
    "Needles and pins, needles and pins,
    when a man marries his trouble begins." (103)
    In conclusion, I highly recommend Margaret Atwood's novel, Alias Grace.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 9, 2009

    A Compelling Read

    This book was a great companion when our power went out for 3 days during a snowstorm and all we had was the fireplace for heat in our 100 year old farmhouse and lanterns for light at night. The pilgrimage described in the first few chapters of the book helped me put my current predicament into perspective.

    Character development was intriguing, plot was intense. Overall another great book by Atwood. I just felt the ending left a little to be desired, or I would have rated it 5 stars.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2003

    Ruined by the ending

    I almost liked this book. I was completely caught up in the story and enthralled by Grace until just before the murder that made the real Grace Marks infamous. I couldn't wait to see how Atwood pulled together the person that I had become so involved with and the awful events. The tension was incredible. Unfortunately, at that point, I felt that Atwood flinched, blinked, dodged, chickened out and otherwise completely dropped the ball. She more or less clumsily draws a veil over that event. I suppose that it would have been possible to have written so skillfully as to have maintained the mystery without leaving the reader feeling cheated, but I was thoroughly disappointed. The intimate detailed narrative is suddenly vanishes and Grace never tells us what happened. She seems to become a different and, for me, very unlikable person. Strictly for people who judge a novel by its prose but not its plotting.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2003

    Compare with Jamaica Kincaid, Lucy: servant think.

    Alias Grace is a psychological/ detective novel for me. Grace's interview with the dudding alienist reveals to the reader things like: if one wishes for something it won't come true, if one talks openly about things it jinxes them. These are the constraints that "lower class" working people live with. I suppose these powerful voodoo cultural limits are everywhere. But Atwood makes them visible. In Lucy by J. Kincaid the novel also deals with a servant and her relationships with her social environment and how with her employers it is bitter and full of class hatred or indifference. Unbridgable. And it is not from lack of exposure, or lack of mingling, it seems innate to the higher and lower relationship. I read somewhere that friends can only be on equal terms perhaps the reverse is true. Inequality breeds bad things. Maybe a support group would help or medication.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 14, 2002

    Dark Deeds in Young Toronto

    Alias Grace is Atwood's best effort to date. A dark and absorbing story starting almost two centuries ago and tapping into the human psyche from the first page. This one will keep you turning the page right to the end. Well deserving of it's awards, not to be missed.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 6, 2001

    Margaret Atwood is a literary genius

    Alias Grace is by far one of the most superior literary masterpieces of the 20th century. Complex, intriguing, spellbinding and engrossing are just a few of the adjectives I would use to describe this novel. A true murder mystery set against a historical backdrop, Ms. Atwood clearly does her research and places the writer 'back in time' to experience the harsh and cruel realities faced by the novel's 'antiheroine' Grace Marks. I strongly recommend it!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 25, 2014

    Better than Expected

    I read this for a book club & probably wouldn't have done so otherwise. I was pleasantly surprised, particularly by the humor. The ending was contrived & inartful, almost as if Ms. Atwood was tired of her own story.
    I've read lots of her other writing, which I much prefer, but she excelled here in recapturing a woman's life at a bleak time. -- catwak

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2013

    Amiti

    Cool……… also, I think you should continue Broken Shadows if you'd like… I forgot to mention that back there in my rambles… haha… ~Your Buddy

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 14, 2013

    The ending felt a bit rushed, but considering how the story play

    The ending felt a bit rushed, but considering how the story played out it made sense why it was done this way. The author's style mixes 1st person perspective, 3rd person, and document style. It's can be pretty mixed but once you will find the rhythm to it.  

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 17, 2013

    Love this book

    Scary and engrossing! I'd read it again. One of Atwood's besr.

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  • Posted January 25, 2013

    Great read

    I read this in a day because I couldnt put it down. Well written victorian era story. Enthralling story that will keep you reading to find out what "really" happened all the way to the end. Women, especially, will be interested and surprised at the inner thoughts of the main character. WHO IS SHE REALLY? A must read...suspense filled drama....not overdone.....very well written.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2012

    The book looks awsome!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    The book looks like a girl thats locked up and she is trying to get out.

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 20, 2011

    Great Book, keeps you interested

    Alias Grace is a book to which a reader will be engaged throughout the whole novel. It's plot is well developed and intense, thus allowing the reader to always want more on entering each chapter. The uses of literary elements are superb however one must keep an eye out to catch and understand what is truly being sad. Great book once again, perfect for everyday readers!

    *Cheers

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  • Posted May 12, 2011

    Solid Novel

    How would you describe the author's style?
    I enjoyed Atwood's style of writing throughout the novel. She changes it up at different points. For example, at the beginning and at the end her writing becomes somewhat complex for the reader. She writes in such away that it lets the brain of the reader visualize the situations. Towards the middle of the novel she wrote more simply and straight to the point. She gave the reader specific, easy to understand facts which I liked because it was less work on my brain.
    "SPOILER ALERT"
    I like how Atwood didn't really reveal to the reader if Grace was guilty or not. It lets the reader come to a conclusion by themselves. I like that because I have a good imagination. I liked seeing the progression and development of Grace Marks throughout the novel as well. Overall, I thought it was a pretty solid novel and I would recommend it to others.

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  • Posted May 1, 2011

    GOOD BOOK!

    How would you describe the author's style?

    I didn't really like Atwood's style of writing just because it was a little slow towards the middle. I liked the parts where Grace was talking and she was thinking and dreaming and telling some of the stuff to Dr. Jordan. I did not like all the background stuff and learning about Dr. Jordan on his free time because I thought it was kind of boring. I also did not like that there was not quotation marks anywhere. Also I was upset that whether Grace was guilty or not was never really revealed. That question is the only mystery part of the book and I was disappointed that the answer wasn't clearly given. The most exciting part of the book was when Grace was telling her story about Nancy and Mary. Overall it was a pretty good book but a little bit slow and excessive outside information about some of the minor characters.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2006

    Pregnancy

    In regards to Alias Grace and pregnancy, it is safe to say that in those days, women who faced pregnancy had their lives turned upside down. Also an old book came into my head when reading this book, dont know if anyone knows it but its called Tess of the d'Ubervilles. Some relation to Alias Grace, in regards to pregnancy

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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