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Margaret Atwood, Synopsis of Alias Grace

Margaret Atwood, Synopsis of Alias Grace

In her astonishing new novel, Margaret Atwood takes the reader back in time and into the life and mind of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of mid-nineteenth-century Canada.

As the story begins, one-time maid-of-all-work Grace Marks is serving a life sentence in the Kingston Penitentiary for her involvement in the vicious murder of her employer, the wealthy Thomas Kinnear, and of Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent: after all, she was barely sixteen in 1843, at the time of the tragedy. Others think her evil or insane. Grace herself, having spent an interlude in the Lunatic Asylum in Toronto, claims now to have no memory of the murders.

Dr. Simon Jordan is one of the up-and-coming men of his day in the burgeoning field of mental illness. Engaged by a group of Kingston "reformers" and Spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace, he listens to the account of her life -- her family's difficult passage from Ireland to Canada, then her time spent in service from the age of twelve. As he brings Grace closer and closer to the day she can't remember, he hears of the strained relationship between Kinnear and Nancy, and of the alarming behaviour of Grace's fellow-servant, James McDermott. Dr. Jordan is drawn to Grace, who manifests "a composure a duchess would envy;" but he is also baffled by her. Still, it is his professional objective to wake the part of her mind which lies dormant. How will he do it, and what will he find? Was Grace a female fiend, a bloodthirsty femme fatale -- or a weak and unwilling victim of circumstances?

Alias Grace is a beautifully crafted work of the imagination, which examines the convoluted relationships between men and women, and between the affluent and those without social position. It potently combines violence, the forces of sexual attraction, and a practical insight into the harsh existence of the poor, with a tender and surprising lyricism.

Margaret Atwood has reclaimed a mysterious and disturbing story from the past century, and has woven it into an intricate narrative that brilliantly evokes time and place. Its characters will continue to haunt the reader long after the final page. Alias Grace is vintage Atwood -- a major achievement.

— By Margaret Atwood. Copyright © O.W. Toad Ltd.

Margaret Atwood's works copyright © to the author.

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