Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

First off, I think I need to come clean and just own that I have a total girl crush on Margaret Atwood after reading only two of her novels. While the Handmaid’s Tale kind of rocked my world, made my heart pound and caused a few tears to be shed (ok, more than a few…) as I pondered the very real parallels with today’s current political crusading, Alias Grace was a story unto itself and utterly cemented my girl crush for the eloquent and indomitable Margaret Atwood. Her stories, so far, have been captivating and beautifully written.

I first heard of Alias Grace by stumbling across the Netflix original series. Seeing not only that it was based on a novel by a familiar author but that the plot seemed less likely to make me sob every episode (I still haven’t been able to finish the Hulu series based on the Handmaid’s tale; too close to home!) I was sucked into Grace’s story and immediately binged-watched 3 episodes in a row. It was only the late hour of 11pm and my usual 5am wake-up alarm that forced me to curtail my viewing pleasure…silly adulting getting in the way of my Netflix.

The story that is continually spun deeper and deeper with each episode is enhanced by a well-chosen cast of actresses and actors and one can’t help but feel transported right into the midst of the mystery being explored. Grace Marks is a convicted murderess who cannot remember what happened the day of the murders and in the past, has exhibited signs of hysteria and possibly insanity. A committee of well-intended Methodist Church members have been working tirelessly to prove Grace’s innocence and garner a pardon from the courts. To this end, they enlist the services of Dr. Jordon, a young doctor in the burgeoning field of psychiatry, to interview Grace and determine whether or not she indeed suffers from hysteria, in the hopes that his report may help sway a judge to pardon Grace.

Day after day, Dr. Jordan interviews Grace, asking her to start at the beginning of her life. The tale she relates, in vivid detail, encompasses such a span of human experience. Grief, joy, sorrow, fear, friendship and loss. Grace’s family immigrated to Canada from Ireland and the description seemed reminiscent of tales told by Irish families who immigrated on the “coffin ships” during the Great Irish famine. Grace’s mother dies during the voyage and once the family reaches Canada, Grace is left to care for her younger siblings while her father spends all their money drinking, until the day he throws her out of the house to find work.

Grace ends up employed as a serving girl in a wealthy house and is befriended by the vivacious Mary Whitney. Through an all-too-common situation, Mary Whitney ends up pregnant by the son of the household owners and dies in the evening after enduring an abortion. Grace is troubled by the loss of her friend and when a better-paying opportunity is offered to her, she jumps at the chance to leave the house where some of the best memories of her young life are entwined with the tragedy of Mary’s death.

The decision to accept this new position is where the real story starts. The trifecta of tension between Grace’s new master, Mr. Kinnear, the housekeeper (or is she?) Nancy Montgomery and the stablehand James McDermott eventually leads to the pivotal mystery of the series/novel. McDermott and Grace are arrested for the murders of Mr. Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery and McDermott claims all the way to the hanging scaffold that Grace was the mastermind behind the murders and the one who convinced him to carry them out. But did Grace knowingly commit the murders? Is her amnesia real or only a convenient defense against a murder charge?

As Grace relates more and more of her memories from before and after the events, I couldn’t help but wonder if she is guilty? I swayed on this decision many a time, sometimes because I didn’t want her to be guilty or maybe she was justifiably guilty, such as the actions leading to the murders were in self-defense? By the end of the series, I don’t know that I really cared if she was guilty or innocent, I just WANTED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED!!!! However, similar to the ending of Handmaid’s Tale, you are left to draw your own conclusions as to what happens during the murders and if Grace, herself, had a knowing hand in the acts.

I decided to read the book version after finishing the TV series as I was curious to see if the ending in the book would give a bit more depth to the story. As much as I loved the Netflix series, the ending felt somewhat abrupt. However, the novel ends in much the same manner (and in some ways, the minor changes between the novel and the series adaptation I actually like better in the series but this may simply be due to seeing this before reading the book) but overall, this is one of the better book-to-screen adaptations I have encountered.

Not convinced yet that you want to watch the TV series or read the book? Well, to further pique your interest, this novel fictionalizes the real-life murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. Grace Marks and James McDermott were indeed the servants arrested and convicted for the murders, with James sentenced to death and Grace to life in prison. Grace was spared the death sentence due to being only 16 at the time of the murders. And, *spoiler alert* after Grace’s pardon and release from prison, not much is known of her life. As Margaret Atwood would say “the true character of the historical Grace Marks remains an enigma.”

 

** Disclosure: Book links in this post are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and decided to purchase one of the books.**

Image credit: Pixabay.com

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Murder, Mystery and Mayhem. Oh my!

Murder, Mystery and Mayhem. Oh my!

Brooklyn on Fire by Lawrence H. Levy is a pleasant, delightful piece of historical murder mystery fiction. This is the second book by the author and having not read the first one, my introduction to both the author and the main character Mary Handley. Now, I don’t tend to read a lot of murder mystery and if I do, I would argue that they fall more on the thriller/suspense side but I love well written, accurate historical fiction. Heck, half of the random facts filed away somewhere in the vast reaches of my brain are from historical fiction novels.

The novel is set in Brooklyn during the year 1890. Mary Handley, the daughter of a butcher, is an young, intelligent, (unofficial) consulting detective attempting to establish herself as a professional. In the first novel, she successfully helps the Brooklyn police close a tricky murder case and now finds herself at loose ends waiting for another potential case. As luck would have it, she is hired by a woman to investigate the 20 year old death of the woman’s uncle where there is suspicion of foul play.

With this review, I don’t want to dive too deep into the plot and provide spoilers but I will say that the twist and turns kept on coming. Mary’s investigation into the uncle’s death uncovers a buried coffin full of stone and that the uncle apparently died not once but twice eight years apart and in two different locations! Other murders, seemingly unconnected to Mary’s investigation, being to occur and the deeper Mary dives into this case, the more she realizes that she is playing fire with Brooklyn’s snobbish elite and the underworld social climbers that pull the strings. As if Mary doesn’t have enough on her plate with missing bodies and cold leads, her brother is arrested for the murder of his fiance (a close friend of Mary’s), and she falls in love with a Vanderbilt and becomes engaged.

I admit to skepticism as to the validity of some facts in this novel. Being somewhat scarred by Hollywood’s inability to keep historically accurate facts in the forefront of their movies, I felt it prudent to keep a running list of things to cross check as this novel seemed chock full of potentially disappointing untrue facts. So with that, I set out to confirm if the below list could be realistic for a person in Brooklyn in the 1890’s to know about or to be a current practice for the era:

  • Embalming still a current practice?
  • Jujitsu?
  • French form of kickboxing called Savate
  • Would a women have a boyfriend

Good ol’ Google did surprisingly confirm these facts: Embalming became popular in the U.S. during the civil war; in the late 1880’s and early 1900’s, the U.S. became fascinated with Japanese culture especially martial arts and so it’s very likely that Mary could have been introduced and trained in jujitsu and there were even debates in England as to whether a boxer could be defeated by a trained martial artist (see website here); while I couldn’t find any proof that Savate was present in the U.S. in the 1890’s (albeit after only a brief internet search), given the popularity it had in Europe during that same time period, I don’t think it’s beyond the scope of historical accuracy that Mary wouldn’t have known and/or been trained in Savate, especially as it was lauded as a self-defense art; and lastly, yes, it is conceivable that a women in or around the 1890’s could indeed have had a boyfriend (linguist history lesson here) and referred to said boyfriend in social conversation.

I can’t remember the last time a novel challenged me to question history but I am pleased that the author obviously did his homework and must have complied some exhaustive research in the writing of Mary’s second adventure. This author’s desire for accuracy is confirmed by an interview he had with a fellow wordpress blogger and also that he put a lot of effort into ensuring the characters spoke accurately for that time frame. I am  still unconvinced on this point but am going to trust in the author on this one. Head over to Book Club Mom to read the interview.

All in all, I enjoyed Brooklyn on Fire. Mary Handley is not a perfect person (a bit prejudice against the rich and privilege) but she is a witty, strong woman living by her own terms and is entirely identifiable with in this current day and age and I look forward to reading more of her adventures. I will give one spoiler alert though- my hopelessly romantic soul is sad her engagement ended. Love is a fickle thing.


 

Brooklyn on Fire is available Jan. 19th, 2016. Find more information here and check out Lawrence H. Levy’s website here.

**I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. My first pre-release book ever! Click the link above for more information.