I chose this book because it’s based on a real-life murder mystery and I felt that would make it that much easier for me to read. At least if it’s a subject I like, I won’t find it too hard to read, I thought. I was understandably wary, coz she’s a prize-winning author and in general I’m wary of award-winning literature! Also attempting to read the Bookers recently, has only served to increase my scepticism 😛 This one was nominated in 1996 after all 😉
Still, since the Daily Mail promised an ‘explosive mixture of murder, sex and class conflict’, how could I resist? I’m glad I didn’t! Although explosive isn’t a term I would use to describe the author’s style of writing, the double-murders of Thomas Kinnear & his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery were certainly sensational when they occurred! The book mixes fact & fiction seamlessly and so efficiently that it’s hard to believe that the fictional characters are just that – fiction! Also Atwood’s prose is quite phenomenal and is so evocative, you can taste it! Here’s an example as early as Page 25, “Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word – musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor. Murderer is merely brutal. It’s like a hammer, or a lump of metal. I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices.” Well now!
I was hooked! The story explores the life of Grace Marks, co-accused in the double murders. Her alleged accomplice James McDermott was hanged for the crime, and her sentence commuted to life in prison due to her extremely young age (she was only 16 at the time) & her supposed amnesia surrounding the actual events that took place. I dare say in the 21st century with our somewhat superior knowledge of the human mind & considerably advanced practice of Psychiatry, her case wouldn’t be considered unique, one might even think it commonplace, but given the time period, it is fascinating, not in the least because of its ambiguity and deceptive simplicity.
Atwood traces Grace’s childhood; as a young girl growing up in Ireland, with a drunk, abusive father and a passive, lacklustre mother who cannot seem to stop reproducing despite their poverty and hopeless circumstance; the journey across the Atlantic that brings her to Canada – the promised land of dreams & destiny; and her years spent as a servant in various households & the people that mould her short life before it all goes to pieces. Atwood’s use of narrative style lifts what could have become a monotonous narrative and lends it perspective & character. I like that every chapter begins with quotes from the newspapers of the time and often a relevant verse, & I like that some of the story is told in the form of letters between different characters that serve to carry the tale forward and are each written in a signature style.
The highlights of the book for me were the interactions between Grace & Dr. Jordan, a doctor with an interest in ‘mental illnesses, who attempts to help Grace overcome her amnesia & understand her side of the story. They work like teasers – at once insightful, imaginative and revealing, & yet ambiguous enough to leave you guessing just like poor Dr. Jordan! And ultimately I think that’s why this book made such a lasting impression on me – I can’t quite make up my mind – is Grace innocent? If she is – is it because of her ‘alleged insanity’ or because she’s ‘truly’ innocent? There are so many versions of Grace as seen through the eyes of those whose lives she touches, that it’s hard to know which one is the authentic one – it could so easily be ‘all of them’. The fact that Grace was real makes her all the more intriguing! I can well understand her ability to drive most men up the wall and probably more women – given her fatal combination of beauty, brains, innocence & a deceptively calm and collected demeanour. A hard nut to crack this one but Oh! The joy in trying!
There was a time when this kind of story would have irritated me no end, a time when I liked my endings neatly wound and presented with a bow 😉 Thankfully I’m over that phase and so able to enjoy a much wider range of books 🙂 And I did – enjoy this one! Immensely & Utterly 🙂 Even the strange side story of the good Dr. Jordan and his land lady that often seemed to me to mirror his unconscious feelings toward Grace. As for the rest…well you’ll just have to read the book now won’t you 😉
After a few weeks break, I’m hoping to tackle The Blind Assassin. I have high expectations of Ms. Atwood now and I hope she doesn’t disappoint! Somehow I don’t think she will 🙂