‘Alias Grace’ by Margaret Atwood is based on the true story of Grace Marks, a servant convicted of the notorious double murder of her employer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper and mistress Nancy Montgomery alongside stable hand James McDermott in Toronto in 1843 when she was just sixteen years old. After they were caught attempting to escape from Canada to the United States, McDermott was hanged for the crime while Grace was sentenced to life imprisonment at Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario after her death sentence was commuted at the last minute. Despite confessing to the crime at the time, Grace still claims to have no memory of the murders fifteen years later. Her sanity is being investigated by American psychiatrist Dr. Simon Jordan at the invitation of a liberal minister who believes she is innocent.

Atwood’s historical fiction output is relatively rare compared to the dystopian novels she is best known for but she replicates the complex structure and slow denouement of gothic novels of the era very convincingly, with a style that is neither overly archaic or jarringly modern. Real accounts of the crime taken from newspapers and written confessions are interwoven with correspondence, poetry and the perspectives of both Grace and Dr. Jordan. The patchwork quilt motif which recurs in the chapter structure and in piecing together the available evidence is itself very well crafted.

Grace’s family emigrated to Canada from Ireland in 1840 when she was twelve years old. Following her mother’s death during the ship crossing, Grace and her siblings were left in the care of their abusive father before she later found work as a maid. As well as the events leading up to the murders themselves, the novel addresses several other topics through the meetings between Grace and Dr. Jordan including prison conditions, the early development of psychology as an area of medical and scientific study and, most importantly, the role of poverty and gender in society.

There is still a great deal of uncertainty about Grace’s role in the crime – she is said to have given three very different accounts of what happened – and Atwood handles this ambiguity deftly right to the very end. In the afterword, Atwood acknowledges that the written accounts are so contradictory that there is relatively little information which is unequivocally “known” to be true. Her fictionalisation of events fills in the numerous blanks and the result is a sharply nuanced portrait of one of the most complex and elusive enigmas of the era.

The TV adaptation of ‘Alias Grace’ due to be released on Netflix later this year will hopefully bring more attention to one of Atwood’s most satisfying novels over twenty years after it was first published. Of the six novels by Atwood I have read so far, it is certainly among my favourites.