Grace, Hope and Charity; ALIAS GRACE by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury, [Pounds Sterling]16.99)
Byline: VAL HENNESSY
OH brilliant, brilliant! I cannot rave enough about Margaret Atwood's stunning and mesmerising novel based on the true story of a convicted murderess.
In 1843 Grace Marks was just 15 years old and employed as a domestic skivvy in Canada when she was tried and sentenced to hang for the cold-blooded murder of her employer and his lover. Grace's alleged male accomplice was, indeed, executed but many people believed that Grace was innocent and her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
For 28 years she was shunted between the lunatic asylum and prison, finally pardoned, settled in New York, changed her name and vanished into obscurity.
These are the facts, and this is the story that Atwood reconstructs. So dazzling is her skill that by the time you've finished the novel you feel as if you know Grace, you have met her, you can hear her voice, she is there in your head, vivid and tragic and thoroughly unforgettable.
Into the narrative comes Dr Jordan (based on fact), a pioneer in mental health. It is to him that Grace, with dignified composure, tells her story.
Particularly harrowing is her account of the atrocious sea journey endured by her family when they emigrated from Ireland to make new lives in Canada.
Conditions were similar to those on the slave ships, with passengers crammed into the hold `like herrings in a box', without ventilation, sanitation or privacy. Most were `sick as dogs'.
When Grace's wretched mother expires and is buried at sea, her daughter's bleak recollection that there was `something dreadful about it, to picture her floating down in a white sheet among all the staring fish' chills you to the marrow.
In Canada the child Grace escapes from violent father and clinging siblings into a life of drudgery. As a domestic servant in various households she slaves from dawn till night, and is routinely sexually harassed by employers. `He attempted liberties while I was carrying out the dishes' she tells Jordan of one employer, and though she has been warned by a sister servant to kick these predators where it hurts, she explains: `I thought it would not be right to kick my employer, and might also lead to dismissal without a reference.'
However, her story is not all unrelenting gloom. We catch glimpses of temporary happiness once she has been befriended by scullery maid, Mary Whitney. …