I don’t love TV series. If I have to keep up with a big plot arc, it’s not for me. I got through a couple of seasons each of Orange is the New Black and The Walking Dead before I gave up. It’s hard to care about fictional characters in the same basic situation for several actual years. Netflix has made things worse; if I binge watch a show, the next season doesn’t come out for 12 months, and I’m lost when it’s finally on screen.
Margaret Atwood’s famous novel Alias Grace is adapted for screen by highly talented Sarah Polley, and comes in at 6 episodes (no more!), each about 45 minutes long. That I could do! The haunting series captured my interest as I learned a fictionalized version of the actual murderess Grace Marks, who was an Irish immigrant who traveled with her family to Canada in the 1840s, where they were promised a better work situation.
When I picked up Atwood’s book, I was surprised to learn how closely Sarah Polley stuck to the 552-page novel. I love when this happens! Sometimes I just want to see a book come to life and not a director’s interpretation of a work.
The novel begins with Grace Marks in prison. On July 24, 1843, Grace Marks (age 16) was accused of double murder. She spends decades incarcerated, at times in a penitentiary and for a while in a “lunatic asylum.” Many people have interviewed her over the years, but now Dr. Jordan has arrived. He’s not a doctor that cuts people, Grace learns, but a doctor of the nerves and mind. He wants to hear her story to determine if Grace can remember, not to discover if she’s innocent. An entire committee of do-gooders surround Grace and work to have her sentence overturned, and it is they who brought in Dr. Jordan, hoping his findings will help their cause.
On its surface, this is a novel that teases readers with clues as to Grace’s innocence or guilt. Atwood is relentless. Such lines as the following raise red flags: Confronting a sassy rooster, Grace tells the creature, “Mind your manners or I’ll wring your neck. . . although in fact I could never bear to do anything of the sort.” How odd, I think, that one murder victim was strangled! And there are several mentions of Grace making the story more “colorful” to please Dr. Jordan. After he brings her a radish, and she consumes the fresh produce delightedly, she thinks:
Because he was so thoughtful as to bring me this radish, I set to work willingly to tell my story, and to make it as interesting as I can, and rich in incident. . .
A reader can spend the whole book wondering if he/she will grab some clue that finally determines Grace’s truth, but as Alias Grace is based on a true crime that never fully unearthed Grace’s story, Atwood would have to either determine Grace’s innocence or guilt without proper evidence, or lead us on a psychological adventure. She chose the later, which makes the novel an interesting read. You can’t help but change your mind about Grace’s story every couple of chapters.
Deeper down, this a novel about women navigating society. Grace recalls an alcoholic father who hits his wife and children. Once he throws Grace out of the house shortly after their arrival in Canada, she finds work as a live-in domestic servant and must navigate the sexual advances of nearly every man she encounters. Several times, Grace describes blocking her door at night to prevent the young man of the house from coming in to assault her. It’s a story of privilege that doesn’t feel too distant in the #MeToo movement.
Dr. Jordan — and this reader, I must confess — lean in as Grace describes man after man pawing at her and calling her a whore for refusing them. Both Dr. Jordan and I are making connections between unwanted, incessant sexual advances and murder. The people she murdered? Mr. Kinnear, who owns the house in which she worked, and the head servant, Nancy, who is obviously the man’s pet and lover. They flaunt their relationship in front of Grace, and you can make guesses as to why she murdered them, if indeed she did.
One of the first homes in which Grace is placed to work is where she meets her new best friend, Mary. You get a feeling like when Anne Shirley and Diana meet in Anne of Green Gables: it’s meant to be and it’s an unbreakable bond. That is, until Mary realizes she is “in the family way” and cannot persuade the man who promised to marry her to follow through. Readers realizes quickly he is the young mister in the house, a rich college playboy who felt he was just having a romp with the hired help, and what does it matter if he gives her a small gold ring and a false promise to get into her bed. There is a connection between what best friend Mary suffers and the murdered Mr. Kinnear and Nancy: the ending must be equal when the sin is the same.
One man readers are meant to trust is Dr. Jordan, who is a good listener. But between chapters that Grace narrates are sections in third-person limited that follow Dr. Jordan. We learn he solicited a number of prostitutes while he studied in Europe and has sexual thoughts about Grace — his patient! There is a whole tangle of complications that Dr. Jordan brings upon himself with his landlady whose husband has abandoned her, too. I cannot help but think that Dr. Jordan is the same kind of nasty man who may try to get into Grace’s room at night if she were his servant. He appears to be the same kind of “gentleman” who abandoned friend Mary after she became pregnant, so how much can we trust him? Being unable to trust anyone makes the story compelling.
After a while, I felt that the book was captured so well in the TV show that I was convinced I could have skipped the novel. However, the chapters have clips of newspaper articles about the real Grace Marks and selections from a Ms. Moody, who interviewed the real Grace and wrote a book. Then ending, too, gave a better sense of what Grace was feeling than the TV show did, and I was glad for that. It comes full circle when another man asks her to describe the abuse she’s suffered, leaning in when she gets to the pawing would-be rapists. You’re left wondering what will happen to him, if anything, and if he can be trusted.
Overall, enjoy the TV show and the book! I recommend both.