Katie was the latest winner of our extremely illustrious “win a book review” competition over on Instagram, and today she’s back with her thoughts on Alias Grace.
We’ll let Katie do most of the talking, but if you’ve never read much Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace is a great place to start. It’s atmospheric, vaguely spooky and completely absorbing. It’s also now a series on Netflix – the perfect excuse to read it and check whether the book was better.
Katie has some excellent insights into the book – she has me wanting to read it all over again – and her dream film casting is spot on.
I’m going to hand the mic over now – but just a reminder that if you like the idea of reading great books and then telling people what you thought of them, we also happen to be an online book club. We’re doing this stuff all the time over in our members’ area.
love from Rachel, your Rare Birds editor x
Okay Katie: what made you choose Alias Grace?
My first introduction to Margaret Atwood came in the form of the Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Dark, thought-provoking and unashamedly feminist, the horrors of Gilead had me hooked from the start, and once I got my hands on the book I consumed it in one sitting. The more the series blew up, the more I saw about Atwood on social media. Here, I thought to myself, was the perfect writer for me. But where to start? She had at least ten other novels, a bunch of short story collections and more poetry anthologies than I could begin to comprehend.
Imagine my delight then, when Netflix started dropping trailers for their dark new show based on another of Atwood’s novels, Alias Grace. Even just a quick glance showed me all I needed to know – murder, sex, oppression, mystery, spirituality. And even more intriguing: ‘based on true events’. A weekend of binge-watching later and I knew I had to get my hands on the book.
What did you think?
I loved it! It was the perfect read during the sticky summer heatwave. Atmosphere is so important in Alias Grace – from the suffocating confines of the boat that takes her to Canada, to the cold, harsh winters in the tiny attic room – so it felt fitting to be sifting through the pages in stifling heat.
For those that don’t know, Alias Grace follows the story of the imprisoned Grace Marks, found guilty of having killed her employer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. Having served fifteen years in prison for the crimes, she begins to receive visits from Dr Simon Jordan, a psychiatrist hired by some supporters of Grace in the hopes of proving her innocence. In an attempt to discover her memories of the killings, Dr Jordan listens as Grace recounts her life story, and soon finds himself as tangled in her tales as everyone else – is Grace an innocent bystander, a seductive murderess, or is there perhaps something even more mysterious at play?
The narrative structure of the novel plays a huge role in pulling the story together. The past and the present interweave through a series of letters, flashbacks and snippets from real reports of the trial. Interweaving really is the key word here: every section of the book is named after a quilt pattern. In fact, Grace sews her way through each of her meetings with the doctor, stitching together ladies’ dresses and prisoners’ nightgowns as she pulls together her patchwork tales of her past, constantly making the reader question just how much control Grace over how her story is presented.
Atwood takes the old descriptions of the real-life Grace Marks and brings her difficult life into full technicolour. Oppressed by her circumstances as a lower class, female immigrant in the mid-19th century, Grace comes to represent the age-old female dichotomy. Is she the virgin or the whore? The innocent or the seductress? Atwood’s prose is so rich and entrancing, she’ll keep you guessing until the very last page.
Who would you cast in the film?
This question was especially hard to answer after watching the Netflix adaptation (I find film and TV casting tends to completely take over my internal image of the characters). That being said…
Grace Marks: Saoirse Ronan – duh! She’s Irish, could totally pull off the “air of hopeless melancholy that is painful to contemplate” and she has those piercing blue eyes that could easily switch between innocent maiden and cold-blooded murderess. Sure, she’s a good decade younger than Grace is when she starts telling her tale, but that’s nothing a bit of movie magic can’t fix.
Dr Simon Jordan – Dan Stevens or James McAvoy. Two very different actors, but I think they both could give so much to the role of the frustrated, conflicted doctor.
Mary Whitney – Jena Malone. She’d voice Mary’s sharp tongue perfectly.
James McDermott – Richard Madden. Is he too handsome to play the rough stable hand? Probably. Would that stop me from casting him? Nah.
Nancy Montgomery – Rosamund Pike. Without a doubt the easiest casting choice. From the moment she stepped on the page, I knew the Gone Girl actress would be a perfect Nancy.
Go on Hollywood, you know you want to…
Who are you, what’s your name, and what do you “do”?
My name’s Katie Evans, I’m 23 years old and I live in Nuneaton, in pretty much the dead-centre of England.
I’ve spent the last four years studying in Birmingham – first for my BA in English and Creative Writing, then for my PGCE PCET – and now I’ve just landed my first teaching job!
In my spare time I try to read as much as I can (I’m aiming to get through 45 books this year), occasionally I write (though much of my ‘writing’ time is spent staring at blank Word documents) but without a doubt my favourite thing to do is travel and explore new places.
Best book you’ve read? Don’t overthink it…
Usually I’d struggle to pick favourites but earlier this year I picked up a book I became utterly obsessed with. ‘If We Were Villains’ by M.L. Rio had me entranced from the first few pages. It’s a thriller about a close-knit group of actor friends studying Shakespeare together, and how things all fall apart when the roles they usually play get disrupted. I fell in love with all the characters and was caught between wanting to finish it all in one go and wanting the experience to last as long as possible.
Invent the title of a self-help book you’d most benefit from reading
‘Wake Up and Smell the Coffee: How to Stop Dreaming Your Life Away and Make the Most of Each Moment’.
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