19th-Century Portrait Offers Feminist Insights

Alias Grace

By Margaret Atwood

Doubleday/Nan A. Talese

468 pp., $24.95

In 1843, wealthy farmer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, were killed in a double-murder that both shocked and riveted Canadians. Scandal-mongers were particularly enthralled by Kinnear's teenage maid, Grace Marks, a pretty Irish immigrant who was believed to be murderer James McDermott's accomplice - and, newspapers hinted delicately, his lover.

Marks, who was sentenced to life in prison for her role in the murders, became Canada's answer to Lizzie Borden. She became a kind of cause clbre: Many efforts were made to get her sentence commuted - arguing that she was merely a witness to the crimes and that she was McDermott's hostage when the two fled to Toronto.

In "Alias Grace," Canadian author Margaret Atwood has adopted - with great success - Marks's story as a ready-made allegory for her ongoing dialogue about the nature of women begun in works such as "The Handmaid's Tale," "Cat's Eye," and "The Robber Bride."

Grace has a strength of character and insight that embraces contemporary feminism without becoming anachronistic - as in her pragmatic humor in describing "Eve's curse": "The real curse of Eve was having to put up with Adam, who as soon as there was any trouble, blamed it all on her."

As a celebrated murderess, Grace has been freed from the constraints placed on proper ladies, giving her a mental freedom despite years of imprisonment. "A lady might conceal things, as she has her reputation to lose, but I am beyond that.... I was never a lady, Sir, and I've already lost whatever reputation I ever had. I can say anything I like; or, if I don't wish to, I needn't say anything at all."

The story begins years after the murders, when American psychiatrist Simon Jordan moves to Toronto to interview Grace (who claims to have no memory of the murders) and uses his mental powers to unlock the real story.

"She 'sits on a cushion and sews a fine seam,' cool as a cucumber and with her mouth primmed up like a governess's, and I lean my elbows on the table across from her, cudgelling my brains, and trying in vain to open her up like an oyster," he observes.

"Alias Grace" works on two levels: It is a quality work of literary fiction, but it is also a fine mystery. Told in interviews, letters, and flashbacks, Grace's story is pieced together as beautifully as the quilts described throughout the novel.

The novel slows down only when Atwood gives in to the temptation to show just how much she knows about 19th-century life. Her occasional dabblings into the spiritualism and sances so popular during that time, for example, detract from the more interesting story of Grace herself.

But these are minor quibbles with a book that stitches together meticulous research and stunning prose to create a character so strong and believable. Atwood is in danger of rewriting history.

* Yvonne Zipp is on the Monitor staff.

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