Emblem Editions, 1999
Take a sensational event. Gather all information available about it, credible or not (testimonies, newspaper articles, letters etc.). Fill in the gaps with your own imagination. Carefully delete any border between reality and fiction. Here it is: the perfect recipe for a postmodernist novel.
And what a novel! As usual, Margaret Atwood creates a "oeuvre d'art". The story of Grace Marks, a "celebrated Canadian murderer" of the 19th century, is retold in a ludic manner, enriched with unexpected meanings and robbed of all her "real" reality to be invested with a whole "fictive" reality. Do you get now the "alias" in the title? Of course, the surprising adjective stands also for the subtle transformation of "grace" into a commun noun, and for many other meanings, yours to discover.
I think the theme of this extraordinary novel is the destiny, viewed like, why not, a quilt pattern, to decipher before assembling. This becomes evident as soon as you understand Mary Whitney's death story as a "mise en abyme" which foresees Nancy and her lover's deaths. Almost the same story (the love between the gentleman and the servant gone bad), but with different consequences and a somehow better served justice. Because Grace identifies herself with Mary (another explanation for "alias"), and avenges her but saves herself by putting her actions in Mary's hands (as in she doesn't remember, she has black-outs, she was possessed by Mary's vengeful spirit as revealed in the seance of hypnotism organized by the impostor Jeremiah the Peddler).
And this is only one interpretation of this peculiar story centered apparently around one big question: "Is Grace guilty or not?" No one is able to discover the answer, not Simon the doctor who interviews her to better understand the mind's mechanics, not her lawyer, not the hospice doctor, not the reverend who writes petition after petition for her pardon, and of course Grace herself never explains, only tells some parts of the truth. Like a quilt (the leitmotive of the novel) with too many different patterns, the truth is hidden under too many variants.
But is the answer to the guilt question important? For real justice it certainly was. For literature, not as important as the strong character created by a skilful writer from small details, from many voices and little action. And this is, finally the main quilt pattern to discover.