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“If we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged.”

 

Not quite straight. Molle Street, Hobart. February 2021.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace is an intriguing exploration of the life of one Grace Marks, a once-notorious Canadian murderess. Convicted at age 16 of the double murder of her employer and his mistress, a significant cause célèbre in 1843 Ontario.

Given the ongoing discussion of literary appropriation and of who exactly can tell whose story, I declare that I am agnostic on the issue of an author taking a real-life event and exploring broader themes – as Atwood has done here – as long as it is done well and without sensationalism. Atwood does not fixate on the guilt or innocence of the protagonist, or at least no more than she explores the responsibility or integrity of the society that produced the events that drive the tale.

It is a meandering novel, large parts epistolary, extensive parts interior monologue. It is a slow-moving piece with a hypnotic quality to it. This approach fits with our central character being locked away in prison (with side trips to the asylum) for over 30 years.

The style is postmodern, with a seamless drift from internal monologue to spoken word to the omniscient third-person narrator. In this, Atwood artfully draws out the contradictions between thoughts, words and actions. She also includes many extracts from published letters, newspapers, poems and books that touch on the subject. This patchwork of textual approaches reinforces the irregular narrative voice. Moreover, it supports the central thrust that for all these sources, how can we ever be certain of central, universal ‘truth of the matter’?

While a flawed book – at times, it is (quite deliberately) repetitive and slow – I enjoyed it immensely.

⭐ ⭐⭐ ⭐

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