Collected Works: Literature
by Margaret Atwood
The peonies were white on the day she first arrived. They were immaculate, ornamental, and ladylike, matching the woman in the straw bonnet who placed them into her basket. Now, pushing through the loose gravel path, they have become dark red and glossy. Foreboding, ‘testing the air like snails’ eyes’, they should not be here: it is only April. Yet in front of her, there are three more. She reaches out; the petals are dry, made of cloth. The flowers burst, scattering the grey, pebbly ground.
The potential truth or falsehood of these crafted flowers, their perceived innocence or malevolence, is a distraction. Alias Grace is a blend of fictional and historical voices: tendentious testimonies, contrived confessions, mistrustful memories, and dubious dreams. Victorian media sensation Grace Marks is a calculating Canadian murderess, a half-witted lunatic, a feeble victim of circumstance, a sexually manipulative siren, a pretty young thing, and simultaneously none of these things.
Margaret Atwood’s subjective version of history seeks to illuminate its documentary fallacies. Visiting Grace’s penitentiary fifteen years after her trial and conviction, it is the fictionalised and well-intentioned Doctor Jordan who provides the catalyst for her to tell her story. But it is the reader, or perhaps her own reflection, who Grace speaks to. She occasionally admits to telling Jordan what he wants to hear, weaving a tale ‘rich in incident’, to make listening worth his while.
The deeper into the novel we get, the more unknowable Grace seems. She sometimes feels trapped within her own story, which ‘must go on with me, carrying me inside it’. Its construction drains her, as if it were one of the quilts that she sewed by hand while in servitude. Those patchwork fragments of fabric may be viewed in multiple ways, but unlike the ominous satin peonies, their design reassures. The patterns remind Grace that she is allowed to remain an enigma: to Jordan, to us, and to herself.
Words by Emma McKinlay
More to discover
You can read an excerpt from Alias Grace here. Mark Abley interviewed Margaret Atwood for The Guardian in the month of the novel's release, and Francine Prose reviewed the book for The New York Times.
Interviews with Atwood available online include those by Mary Morris for The Paris Review, Arifa Akbar for The Independent, Robert McCrum for The Observer (UK), Hermione Hoby for The Telegraph, Ed Finn for Slate, and Lauren Oyler for Broadly (video).