Alias Grace is a character study written by Margaret Atwood. It also focuses on the burgeoning world of alienists, who pioneered the study of the mind, mental health, and psychology as we know it today. Just for good measure, Atwood throws in mysterious killings. This is a historical fiction novel in the best sense of the genre.
Atwood follows the story of Canadian Grace Marks, introducing her when she’s already a prisoner convicted of brutal killings. Grace tells the story she recalls. But it’s unfortunately limited by an inconvenient memory block. But Atwood doesn’t stop there. She incorporates newspaper clippings and even poems into the story.
Grace’s storytelling foil is the young American alienist Dr. Simon Jordan. He has big ambitions and hopes that uncovering Grace’s secrets can propel him into the stratosphere of experts. Atwood alternates the two perspectives as Jordan tries to help Grace crack open her amnesia.
This is an excellent backlist choice, initially published in 1996. Atwood delves deeply into the traditional male and female roles in the early 19th century while also addressing class differences. Her character Grace is alternately likable and frustrating. Jordan follows the mindset of a typical male of the time—focused on his own goals and expecting women to help get him there.
As always, Atwood weaves everything together with creativity and propulsive writing. There’s no question that she’s a master of her craft.
Pair with Trust by Hernan Diaz (review to come), as I did. These are two very different historical fiction novels but they are equally excellent.