This is the third novel by Margaret Atwood I have read, the previous two being the Blind Assassin and The Handmaid's Tale. What is apparent after reading these three books is the wide range she can turn her hand to, and the fact that she is one of the most important living authors. Alias Grace is a brilliant book - with a twin introspective and external focus, making it an exceptionally relevant read.
Alias Grace tells the story of Grace Marks, a teenager found guilty, along with another man, of the murder of her master and his housekeeper in Canada in the 19th Century. It was a notorious case at the time, making the papers as far away as Britain. Grace was given a last minute reprieve from the gallows and instead had to serve a life sentence.
The books focuses upon a psychologist looking into whether her claim of amnesia regarding the events is genuine or not. Atwood has written his letters particularly well and she succeeds in drawing out much humour and emotion - especially is his mother's missives. Indeed the whole book draws together a number of different strands - prose, poetry, contemporary reports and knitting patterns - to great effect.
The main part of the book, however, focuses upon Grace. Grace isn't defined by who she is but by who other people want her to be - reflected in the title. People who believe she is guilty or innocent do not do so on the basis of the evidence, but rather by the weight of their expectations. Atwood makes no judgement as to whether she is guilty or not. I suspect she is guilty, but then am I bringing the weight of my expectations to the book?
In this way the book is curiously relevant - we live in a world where much violent crime is sensationalised, and we make relatively few judgements on the basis of facts but rather by instinct. In this way Atwood allows us to search ourselves as much as we do Grace.