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I’ve held Margaret Atwood in high regard ever since I first read The Handmaid’s Tale years ago. As most readers know, the book has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity thanks to the new Hulu series, which has been both critically acclaimed and well-received by viewers.
I don’t subscribe to Hulu, so I haven’t had a chance to watch the series–though I am intensely curious about it. When I heard that Netflix (to which I am a subscriber) had developed Alias Grace, another Atwood novel, I thought I would try out both the book and the series. (Warning: some spoilers ahead. I tried not to reveal too many details here, but this is a tough one to review without addressing the ending.)
Based on a true case from 1843, the story focuses on Grace Marks, a young woman who at the age of 16, was convicted of the murders of her employer, Mr. Kinnear, and a fellow housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Her alleged accomplice, James McDermott, was also employed in Kinnear’s home. The two were arrested in a hotel not long after the murders, wearing the victim’s clothes and carrying valuable items stolen from the home. Grace insists she has no memory of the key events.
Now, eight years later, McDermott has been executed and Grace remains in prison. She often assists in the prison governor’s home, providing visitors with opportunities to gawk at the famed murderess. Some community members believe in her innocence and bring in psychiatrist Dr. Simon Jordan to draw out lost moments of Grace’s memory in the hopes of exonerating her.
I started reading the book soon after Christmas and was quickly drawn in. Interspersed with sensationalistic reports from the trial and the years after, questions quickly emerge: what really happened in that house? Is Grace Marks evil, crazy, or a victim herself? Can she really not remember what happened the day of the murders?
Atwood is a talented writer, and the sharp prose and insights readers love from her other books is present here as well.
From this strong beginning, however, the book quickly slows down–way down. Jordan takes Grace far back into her own history, to her family’s crossing from Ireland to Canada, her mother’s death, and her abusive father’s eventual forcing her out of the house to earn money.
We trod through her various places of employment, eventually landing in the house where she meets Mary Whitney–which happens to be the alias she provided upon her arrest.
Tragic circumstances and a chance opportunity for new employment lead Grace to the isolated Kinnear house, where the housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, and the stablehand, James McDermott, are the only other employees.
Interactions with Nancy soon prove volatile–a far cry from the close friendship with Mary Whitney that Grace had hoped to recreate. Nancy’s pleasant moments frequently alternate with petty jealousy, especially when Grace has any moments alone with Kinnear-and it soon becomes clear that Nancy herself has a romantic relationship with him.
Grace recounts how she and McDermott toiled under Nancy’s authority and whims, and this is where the stories diverge. Who first thought of the murders? Who actually had a hand?
This narrative comes out over a number of weeks, as Dr. Jordan tries to solve the puzzle of Grace Marks. Jordan is a subplot in himself (and a jarringly unnecessary one, in my opinion). He finds himself by turns attracted, repelled, and disconcerted by Grace.
This inner conflict could have proven effective to the story, but it’s then muddled with issues with Jordan’s landlady. On the brink of a breakdown herself after being abandoned by her husband, she is starving and clinging to Jordan for support–and hoping for some kind of relationship or salvation as she climbs in his bed each night.
As the community of Grace’s supporters becomes impatient for results, they bring in a hypnotist–ultimately creating more questions than answers.
And this is how the story trickles off–lots of build up, lots of questions, and no answers. There is no answer for how Grace’s ultimate fate came about–it just happens, with no real explanation. I suppose this may reflect Atwood’s research on the case, which uncovered little truth by the end.
Many readers are satisfied with unresolved endings and unreliable character. There are some books where this works for me. In this case, it begs the question: after all the fictionalization of the middle of the story, were there no (fictional, speculative) conclusions that Atwood could have drawn about the central question?
Atwood’s prose is, as always unimpeachable and a pleasure to read. The feminist overtones and indictments of the patriarchal society determining the fate of all the female characters are effective and maddening. For those reasons, I appreciated and even savored parts of the book. As a true crime drama, however, it wasn’t enough to carry a story with a weak ending.
The Netflix Series
After some disappointment with the book, I went into the series with little enthusiasm but decided to check it out anyway.
The show closely follows the story laid out in the book and is more explicit about the horrors Grace endured during her years in the asylum and prison. These horrors are touched on in the book, but the frequent flashbacks in the series are more effective at demonstrating the trauma wrought by the doctors and prison guards over the years.
In this way, and in several others, the show was actually more successful than the book. The sense of uncertainty on the show seemed more intentional than in the book. Grace seems more like the unreliable character she’s meant to be–this is set out from the beginning. Several key conversations between Grace and McDermott worked better on the show as well, and felt less awkward and unrealistic than they had in the book.
What doesn’t work on the show–even less than in the book–is the subplot of Dr. Jordan’s affair with his landlady. The reasons it’s happening are not clear and the emotions that accompanied it (in the book) were rushed. (It also didn’t help that I just didn’t like the actor portraying Jordan very much–his voice and delivery grated.)
The hypnotism scene onscreen felt more dramatic than that in the book, and more importantly, it felt like it made a choice about some supernatural elements at work. These, again, were touched on in the book but not fully explored and felt like only one of many possible answers to the mysteries.
On the whole, I didn’t find Alias Grace to be Atwood’s most compelling work, though there are many reviewers who loved it. I haven’t read all of her books (and I’m still planning to read others), but of those that I have, that award still goes to The Handmaid’s Tale.
Both book and series ultimately are a character study of a notorious historical figure. The truth of what actually happened isn’t known. However, both book and show successfully create suspense and questions that readers (and watchers) want answered, within the context of the fictional world Atwood created. Unfortunately, the flat, ambiguous ending just doesn’t deliver. Read or watch if you are a fan of Atwood’s prose, feminism, and turns of phrase (because some of her excellent quotes are also used verbatim in the show), but skip it if you’re bothered by ambiguous endings.
Did you read or watch Alias Grace? What did you think?