Of all the books on our bookshelf, Alias Grace is the one that strays furthest into that vague, confusing territory also known as ‘literary fiction’.
For most of us, this will prompt one of two reactions – (1) you’re breathing a sigh of relief because you can read a “smart book” and smugly recommend it to other people. Or – (2) you’re feeling full of dread, because to you literary fiction is essentially shorthand for a book that you’ll try and fail to finish because you found it difficult to understand, or enjoy, etc.
Regardless of your feelings on the above, with Margaret Atwood you are in very safe hands.
She’s a widely respected, critically acclaimed, award-winning and all around amazing writer who has been subverting ideas about genre and what it means to write for and about women her entire caree
Pick up one of her books and you can expect to read something that’s pacey, interesting, and probably on the syllabus of university-level lit course somewhere.
You might only know the name from the hugely popular dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which is having a bit of a moment right now thanks to the also hugely popular TV adaptation. If you read the book in secondary school or watched the series and want to dip your toe into Atwood’s writing, let us offer you Alias Grace as an excellent place to start.
It’s a work of historical fiction, and – like all great podcasts – is based on a true story. It tells the story of Grace Marks, a notorious prisoner jailed for her part in murdering her employer and his housekeeper, a crime she claims she can’t remember committing.
Here’s where it all gets a bit interesting. After Grace is convicted of the crime she either did or didn’t commit, there’s a group of people who are pretty sure she didn’t do it, and want to see her pardoned. To help get to the bottom of the whole situation, they call in a psychiatrist, Dr. Simon Jordan.
We’ll be honest with you here – Dr. Jordan doesn’t have a great time of it. He wants to talk about her dreams, Grace isn’t really into it, so he asks about her childhood, and as time goes on, she starts spilling the beans about how she ended up in prison, in vivid detail. To say he’s both confused and entertained would be putting it mildly. On his search for the truth, all he seems to find is duplicity.
While you might not necessarily relate specifically to the life of a maid living in the Victorian era in Toronto, there’s some ideas about identity here that gel really nicely with our social media age. Oh, and it’s also super pacey, unexpected and has a bit of the supernatural too.