Margaret Atwood's ninth novel (1996) is an extensively researched work of historical fiction. It centres on the mysterious figure of Grace Marks, who was convicted in 1843 at the age of 16 for the murders of Thomas Kinnear, her employer and a wealthy Upper Canadian living in Richmond Hill, and Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper and mistress. Atwood was intrigued by Susanna Moodie's chapter on Marks in Life in the Clearings (1853) and wrote a CBC television play about Marks, The Servant Girl (1974), based on Moodie's account.
Alias Grace calls into question Moodie's portrayal of Marks as a guilty madwoman. As Atwood reveals in the novel, public opinion was sharply divided on the question of Marks's role in the murders; reflecting 19th-century gender stereotypes, she was both demonized as a ruthless femme fatale and romanticized as a helpless victim. In Alias Grace, Dr. Simon Jordan, a specialist in the burgeoning field of mental illness, is engaged by a group of Marks's supporters in Kingston to help her recover her apparently repressed memories of the murders. The core of the novel consists of their patient/therapist dialogue, and as the narrative unfolds it is clear that both doctor and patient have split selves.
More than an absorbing murder mystery, Alias Grace is brilliant social history. Atwood also explores mid-19th-century theories of mental illness, public fascination with spiritualism, medical interest in somnambulism, "neuro-hypnotism" and the significance of dreams. Shortlisted for the Governor General's Award and England's Booker Prize, the novel won the Giller Prize for fiction.