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Northern lights // A fine novelist at her peak

Published Jul. 6, 2006


By Margaret Atwood

Doubleday, $24.95

Reviewed by DAVID WALTON

The pleasures of a long novel are the primary pleasures of reading: immersion in a world not our own, and the unraveling of mysteries that take years, and many pages, to unfold.

Alias Grace is Margaret Atwood's ninth novel and 13th book of fiction, and added is the pleasure of reading a fine novelist working at her peak. Alias Grace is that most demanding test of a novelist's abilities, an old story retold _ a historic murder mystery for which any solution can only be conjecture.

Grace Marks was one of the most notorious Canadian women of the 19th century, a young housemaid convicted in 1843 for the murder of her employer and his housekeeper. Atwood first became acquainted with the story, she writes in her afterword, in Susanna Moodie's Life in the Clearings (1853), an account of pioneering life in what was then Upper Canada, now Ontario. Moodie offers "admiring descriptions" of the Provincial Penitentiary in Kingston and the Lunatic Asylum in Toronto. "Such public institutions were visited like zoos," Atwood writes, "and, at both, Moodie asked to see the star attraction, Grace Marks."

Atwood heads her chapters with passages from Moodie's and contemporary news accounts, lines by Tennyson, Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson, a page from the punishment book for Kingston Penitentiary, an 1859 description of "hysteria" in young unmarried women.

The novel opens in 1851, when Grace is almost 24 and has been a prisoner since she was 16 _ a model prisoner, she has overheard the governor's wife say.

"I'm skilled at overhearing," she remarks, "If I am good enough and quiet enough, perhaps after all they will let me go; but it's not easy being quiet and good, it's like hanging on to the edge of a bridge when you've already fallen over; you don't seem to be moving, just dangling there, and yet it is taking all your strength."

An 1843 ballad tells the whole story: "Grace Marks she was a serving maid, Her age was sixteen years, McDermott was the stable hand, They worked at Thomas Kinnear's. Now Thomas Kinnear was a gentleman, And a life of ease led he, And he did love his housekeeper, Called Nancy Montgomery."

McDermott was hanged for the murders of Nancy Montgomery and Thomas Kinnear, Grace was condemned but then pardoned to a life sentence. The main action of the novel begins in 1859, when Dr. Simon Jordan, a young alienist (who today would be called a psychiatrist) and the son of a Massachusetts mill owner, arrives in Kingston to interview Grace, with the possibility of corroborating a petition for her release.

Grace has claimed amnesia at the time of the murders; claimed McDermott alone committed them, and took her on his flight under threat to her life, and then put the blame on her at their trial.

"I can remember what I said when arrested," Grace recalls, contemplating what she will tell Dr. Jordan, "and what Mr. MacKenzie the lawyer said I should say, and what I did not say even to him; and what I said at the trial, and what I said afterwards, which was different as well. And what McDermott said I said, and what the others said I must have said, for there are always those that will supply you with speeches of their own, and put them right into your mouth for you too . . ."

These lines reflect Atwood's theme, which is the varying, contradictory, incomplete and unsatisfying ways the truth of an event, or a person, can be known. Is Grace Marks guilty? I can't say that the question is ever satisfactorily answered, but it is certainly satisfactorily unanswered. With great skill and inventiveness Atwood recreates 1840s Toronto _ the feel of riding a livery horse, the moral predicament of young housemaids, attitudes toward feeding prisoners (rich foods stimulate the criminal organs of the brain), 19th century quilt patterns. I read Alias Grace over two weekends, and every day since have come up with some new puzzle or angle on the mystery.

I haven't yet read Graham Swift's Last Orders, the novel that won this year's Booker Prize in England, but it really must be something to have been chosen over what has to be Margaret Atwood's best, most compelling, and most masterfully written novel.

David Walton is a writer who lives in Pittsburgh.