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on 25 November 2004
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.
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on 15 September 2001
A complete classic, "Alias Grace" works on many levels and weaves together tones and themes to compelling effect.
Against the real life backdrop of the case of Grace Marks, a servant girl accused of murder in 1800s Canada, Atwood has created truly believeable characters and events.
"Alias Grace" tells the story of Grace through the guise of her recounting her life to a "new fangled" psychiatrist who has been sent to study her. Grace's story is intermingled with her private thoughts (perhaps revealing her own agenda), along with the perspective of those in society who are fascinated and sometimes repulsed by her.
Partly a "who-dun-it", the book also works on other levels. Atwood perfectly exposes the hypocrisy and prejudices operating in society at that time, by letting each character reveal their own motivations.
There are subtle sub-plots around the book's minor characters ; Atwood being the writer that she is, the novel has frequent feminist undertones ; the book is in part psychological study, and there are also some real questions raised within the novel that force readers to draw their own conclusions.
Please forget any preconceptions that you may have about Atwood as a writer, or the historical genre. If you have any interest in people and how they interact - or if you simply enjoy a well written novel - I promise that you will enjoy "Alias Grace".
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on 5 August 2014
Curious to try Atwood, I embarked upon Alias Grace for a bygone experience and treatment of people with mental health issues, and the book while not wholly satisfying did turn me into an Atwood fan. A borrowed-from-reality reconstruction of Grace Marks, an eponymous Canadian housemaid from mid-19th century who was tried for murder of her employer and accorded life imprisonment owing to her psychological infirmity and dubious evidence, Atwood's first victory is to immediately grab the reader's attention with a perceptive stream-of-consciousness of her titular heroine: her thoughts, reminisces, actions in punctuation-free, unhinged prose instantly brings her, her mental state and her world alive. Or atleast it gives a credible illusion of having a portal into her world. Almost at the same time another compelling main character is introduced, that of an earnest awaiting-his-big-break young psychiatrist ("psychiatrist" an anachronism: more likely called an "alienist"), who is assigned Grace as a patient with express purpose of unearthing evidence of her precise guilt and innocence. Will he be able to clear the fog over the extent of her implication by compassionate inquiry? Will she tell-all to a man willing to give her an ear? Does she suffer from a personality disorder, a version of amnesia or just gifted in confabulating?

And thus we have a terrific set-up of a perceptive, victimized narrator interacting with an intensely curious one: while one recounts the life and times as an emigre, as a house help shuttled between houses and institutions, vilified by the press and popular opinion, the other charts the dark seas of analysing the said and the unsaid, the observed and the unobserved while battling the calcified opinions of institutional authorities and rapturous attentions of other socially caged mortals of the opposite gender. Later authors like Faulks (Human Traces) and Miller (Pure) have constructed fabulous fictional accounts pivoting on eager, decent, theoretical young Enlightenment men given projects of uncertain promise and fame in the real world who go find themselves drowned in the uncharted seas of human malice and attachments. I must confess my weakness for these sympathetic, comical reader surrogates as one watches them sift through the perplexing world and Atwood rewards me with one more such character in Simon Jordan.

Her prose, free of anachronisms and over-officiousness (Eleanor Catton please note!), beats furiously with wit and warmth. She handles contrasting voices beautifully and juggles changing point of views, letters, newspaper snippets to create a chiaroscuro of perspectives that enthrall at first, but frustrate later. Sadly, for me the book's weaknesses draws from its strengths: the effusive protagonist turns out to be a mistress of evasiveness. Her voluminous interview testimonies which begin with free association and encompass minute details of everyday routines while satiating a reader's sociological curiosity, does not illuminate any more on the three hundredth page as on the first. This is, I feel, deliberate: saddled with an effusive patient, you empathise with the despairing doctor who is none the wiser and leaves the scene out of exhaustion and entanglement. As a reader you have the benefit of access to her unspoken thoughts and "real" moment-to-moment intentions, but you are none the wiser of her involvement in the murder as it slowly dawns on you how "unreliable" a narrator she is.

This deliberate opacity, the unmistifying smokes-and-mirrors, while admirably bringing to fore the grey areas of lawmaking, conviction and culpability in pre-forensics, pre-psychiatry era, can severely test even the most accommodating reader's patience beyond the half-way mark. There are some terrific side-shows, particularly the hilarious, homely mother character who rebukes and worries through letters and when she moves center-stage in the last part, it offers a welcome relief. But for all its triumphs, I felt that if it had been short by a hundred or so pages, that unsettling, uncomfortable feeling of unresolved crime would have dominated my impression more than the wearying length.
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on 25 May 2016
I tried to read Handmaidens Tale [twice] and found it . . . I don’t know . . . preachy? And gave up. This is pretty preachy too, it was shortlisted for the Booker in 1996 the year Graham Swift won it for Last Orders, which I have read and liked. It’s okay. My main-man Hilary Mantel has added her own thoughts on the back cover to the effect that she has a wonderful prose style and indeed she has; beautifully constructed sentences which flow into apparently convoluted paragraphs which then resolve themselves into . . . well . . . literary fiction at its best. Try this from page 422:
Yet he doesn’t feel she dislikes their conversations. On the contrary, she appears to welcome them, and even to enjoy them; much as one enjoys a game of any sort, when one is winning he tells himself grimly. The emotion she expresses most openly towards him is a subdued gratitude.
He’s coming to hate the gratitude of women. It is like being fawned on by rabbits, or like being covered with syrup: you can’t get it off. It slows you down, and puts you at a disadvantage. Every time some woman is grateful to him, he feels like taking a cold bath. Their gratitude isn’t real; what they really mean by it is that he should be grateful to them. Secretly they despise him.
Fawned on. Genius. She flips tenses constantly from past to present and from first-person to third, quite effortlessly. A writer completely on top of her craft, so why spend five-hundred and fifty pages on a mid-nineteenth Century sixteen-year old servant girl in Canada? She isn’t sufficiently interesting enough. Canada in 1843 isn’t interesting enough. If one wrote 550 pages say on David Attenborough’s life and times that might be interesting but then again, it might not. She uses the historical text to draw our attention to the hypocrisy of the times. Man employs kitchen maid; gets kitchen maid pregnant; throws out kitchen maid onto street; gets new kitchen maid; gets new kitchen maid pregnant . . . except Grace bites back.
I can’t read anything for the pleasure of the prose so to speak; there has to be something else.
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on 15 March 2006
Certainly one of Atwood's strongest novels, this thoughtful and provocative text deals with the themes of gender and class in a subtle and challenging dialogue.
Those readers expecting a clear narrative with a revelation of "truth" at the conclusion will be disappointed (as I notice from several of the reviews included here), as this is not a "whodunnit" or standard crime novel. Instead Atwood uses the case of Grace Marks to question and deconstruction 19th century notions of gender and class identity.
The novel is narrated from the differing and, at times, conflicting perspectives of the characters, revealing tensions that are never clearly disolved, but instead open up the class ideologies of the period (as well as the traditional romanticised historical novel) for critique.
Despite (or perhaps due to) the deliberate lack of narrative clarity, and the ultimate lack of resolution, I found this a completing engaging read, and a tale which haunts the memory.
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on 5 September 2013
Part fiction, part fact, Atwood's novel is about the late nineteenth-century murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in Canada. The narrative centres on Grace Marks, the maid, who together with fellow servant James McDermott, were convicted of the murders. McDermott is hanged while Marks is sentenced to life imprisonment. She is committed to the asylum for a period as her sanity becomes a point of contention.

The reader is always in doubt about Marks's culpability in the murders as various points of view present themselves in the novel, including Grace's own. The way into the story is offered by the (perhaps fictitious and composite) doctor Simon Jordan, whose research into the case involves personal interviews with Grace, as she describes the events leading up to the murders and after, even as he becomes visibly enamoured with the subject of his research.

In parts humorous and farcical (especially in Jordan's entanglements with his landlady, while warding off his mother's domineering interference with his life both marital and professional through her letters from afar), Atwood creates not just an ambivalent heroine in Grace as the latter constructs and deconstructs her narrative, but Atwood also casts a keen eye on the way men and women relate to one another, with almost alarmingly misogynistic overtones (tongue-in-cheek or otherwise). Atwood also proffers views on the scientific advancements of those times, and reveals the obsessions with mesmerism and spiritualism, that serve to colour and complicate Grace's case.

As much a commentary on the problem of identity or identities of self, the novel is also an examination of how the truth can be constructed by narrative as much as it remains nebulous and unfathomable.
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on 7 February 2007
A very well written novel. It had me fascinated and hooked from start to finish. Very emotive at times, my curiosity to find out whether Grace was innocent or guilty drove me through this book at a fast pace. On the whole it was a skilfully written mysterious book, I especially liked the interwoven stories of the supporting characters. A deserving read.
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on 15 February 2000
Loved this.'Alias Grace' takes a true murder incident in Canada in the last century and combines genuine research with fictional supposition. As in all such books you want to know the truth, but more than most you trust the author. Broadly you can see where fact and fiction separate, and you feel integrity in the way Atwood has gone about the task. The book is particularly brilliant in capturing the detail of life in the 1840s: what they ate and cooked, hygiene, cleanliness, transport and so on. The chapter describing the horrors of crossing the Atlantic in an emigration ship from Ireland is superb. And the characters are entirely credible as well - Grace now recalling her past with apparent honesty but also a degree of sub conscious suppression. Suppression - particularly of sexuality - is one of the great themes of the book. And, as so often ('Middlemarch', 'French Lieutenant's Woman') it features that key character - the ambitious, clever Victorian young man - a doctor here (Simon Jordan) as in Middlemarch - facing a sea of troubles and doubts. He sets out to improve the world and push the boundaries of knowledge, but is challenged by frustration and by his own confused feelings and sexuality focused on a woman who gets cast as a femme fatale. Because in the world presented here, if women are not servants or wives that is all they can be.
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This novel is a work of genius interweaving real-life accounts with shifting narratives, extracts of poetry and newspaper reports of the time. But the real genius lies not in the narrative structure but the way Atwood's character draws us in and strings us along, evoking our sympathies with the tragic account of her short life prior to being jailed; and all the while, like the psychiatrist Simon Jordan, we are not certain whether she is guilty or not. Is Grace the cold, calculating murderess she is accused of being, stringing us/Simon along without revealing the one thing we want to know beyond everything else? Or was she an innocent victim, wrongly accused by media and public out to seek justice and revenge? In my experience,only people who have something to hide evade telling the truth.
Simon Jordan is drawn into her web and becomes frustrated, confused and uncertain just as I felt on reading Grace's account. Simon Jordan gives up trying to understand Grace and seems to have been taken to the edge of breakdown by her.
I was left with the feeling that Grace was extraordinarily astute, intelligent, charismatic and manipulative. Grace knew just how to play people and so does Margaret Atwood. As anyone will know ,who has had the misfortune to know someone with psychopathic tendencies,contact with such people will leave you feeling utterly confused and disturbed and unable to pin down exactly how they have 'played' you. You just know they have.
This is exactly what Margaret Atwood has done through the character of Grace and it is this which makes this novel a work of genius.
I would have given it 5 stars but I think the way Atwood concluded the story was neither credible or necessary to the plot.
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VINE VOICEon 5 June 2014
I think you have to read a few of Margaret Atwood's books to fully appreciate what a truly great writer she is. She can turn her hand to any subject and produce a completely convincing narrative. The reader is transported to and immersed in the time and place of her choosing. This is different to the other Atwood books I have read because it is based on the true story of Grace Marks, a domestic servant who was convicted in the 1840's of the murder of her employer and his housekeeper, but was spared the gallows. The fictional relationship between Grace and Dr Simon Jordan is particularly interesting as Jordan uses an early form of psychoanalysis to try and establish Grace's true role in the crime.
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