By Margaret Atwood
Anchor Books ~ 1996
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
My Rating: 4.5/5 ⭐️
What I loved most about this book is that it blurs so many social lines that we often try so hard to keep separated. The very nature of the book is ambiguous because Atwood uses historical facts from the real case/life of Grace Marks, while also filling in the blanks where no concrete information could be found. The reader knows the facts of the case, but the mystery that we are trying to unfold is the mystery of Grace’s mind, rather than the crime itself. Is she a vindictive, cunning murderess; is she an unwitting victim caught in a “wrong place/wrong time” scenario; or is she, as Dr. Jordan suspects, suffering from a mental illness? I spent the entirety of the book trying to figure her out, but then I came to wonder, “are we supposed to figure her out?” and I don’t believe that we are. Women, especially in Grace’s time (1843), were typically classified as either an “angel” or “seductress” who had the power to influence the men around her in either positive or negative ways. Although it was frustrating at first not being able to identify Grace, I found it really refreshing that the book never pigeonholes her. We never really know whether she is the influencer or the victim because she is both. Women are complex, fascinating creatures, and Grace was no exception.
What I loved:
• The narrative: The narrative is driven through Atwood’s gorgeous prose, mixed with actual letters and newspaper articles from the real-life case. Which makes it both historical fiction and nonfiction. Throughout the book, the point of view also switches between Grace and Dr. Jordan. This was so fascinating because both points of view are revealed through the consultations between Doctor (Dr. Jordan) and patient (Grace). This type of meeting would typically be confidential, but because the reader is “present,” it adds to the ominous and voyeuristic feel of the book. The reader is simultaneously given Grace’s life story and her point of view on the murders, while also seeing the powerful effect that Grace has on Dr. Jordan. Their relationship straddles the line between love/lust and power/submission. But an interesting question kept popping up for me: Was Dr. Jordan’s infatuation with Grace a reflection of his needs or Grace’s ability to influence him? Does Grace understand her influence over him, or is she oblivious? It’s never clear.
• Fantasy vs. Reality: Because the reader never truly knows Grace’s mind, it’s unclear whether Grace is “inventing” herself as she relates her story to Dr. Jordan or if we are seeing her the way that Dr. Jordan wants to see her. Grace states: “While he writes, I feel as if he is drawing me; or not drawing me, drawing on me.” This line suggests that Grace herself is unsure of her own reality and that she and Dr. Jordan seem to be creating an alternative reality together.
The only thing that I didn’t like: (spoiler)
• The seance (Grace’s hypnotism): I didn’t really care for the moment when the committee members hypnotized Grace in order to find out whether she was innocent. When the voice of Grace’s long dead friend, Mary, came through in the seance, she claims to have forced Grace to commit the crimes. I felt that this moment was attempting to create a quick resolution and it came off forced to me. If we read this as a performance on Grace’s part, then it’s fascinating and connects to her as the ultimate actress. However, if we read this as a comment on her mental health (which was the impression I got), I found it a little unsatisfying, mainly because we never get hints of this elsewhere in the book.
Margaret Atwood is an amazing writer. This is only my second novel of her’s and I am wholly convinced of her genius. I would recommend this is anyone, specifically those who are interested in the gender power struggle of this time period.
If you have read it or plan to, let me know! Happy reading!