by Margaret Atwood
It is set in the early 1800s, Grace Marks and stable hand James McDermott are arrested and charged with the brutal double murder of their employer Mr Kinnear, and Kinnear's housekeeper and mistress Nancy. It would appear to be a callous and degrading murder, but as Grace claims to have no memory whatsoever of the crime, her guilt is always questionable.
Grace is 15 years into her life sentence, and her life has become ordered and calm, largely because the Governor's wife takes the decision that Grace should become her protégé, and she is quite unable to picture Grace as the callous killer. The question is posed; is Grace's life now a calculated charade - or has a miscarriage of justice truly occurred? Can lives be transformed by the delicacy and good manners of polite society?
A committee of spiritualists and reformers seek to obtain her pardon and a young doctor Simon Jordan becomes involved in attempting to extract the truth from Grace. Jordan is a modern practitioner, influenced by new and humanitarian European methods in treating mental illness. Atwood keeps a masterful suspense, as Jordan and Grace meet frequently and an undeniable chemistry between the young doctor and the attractive Grace develops. Jordan appears to be taking Grace closer to a memory of the murder, but how deluded is he? Jordan rather unconventionally develops a method of probing her subconscious by showing her various root vegetables, in the belief that their earthy, buried nature will unearth her own buried memories. This part of the book is rich with metaphor, and I feel certain Freudian images, a century before Freud published his own researches into the subconscious mind. The root vegetables are suggestive indeed, but do not stimulate the perplexed and wry Grace to spill the beans!
Grace has many skills, and learns quickly. Most resonant is her wonderful skill and aptitude with fabrics. She is adept at caring for fabrics -especially removing stains, as well as sewing and quilting. These ladylike attributes also serve as metaphors for the improvement of her life and eradication of her past. Whatever the true story, Grace is a skilled and cunning survivor, a remarkable chameleon and truly a match for anyone who fancies that they can get close to her and unravel her mysteries. This is a disturbing and fabulous book, highly recommended.
Read our interview with Margaret Atwood.