The murders were shocking, and the accused parties became the subjects of obsession in 19th-century Canada. Could an "uncommonly pretty" servant girl named Grace Marks really have participated in the murders of her wealthy employer and his paramour housekeeper in 1843? Or did the stable hand act alone? The true story of Grace Marks has been told and retold over the years, but never as powerfully as in Margaret Atwood's new novel, "Alias Grace," recently shortlisted for Britain's Booker Prize. The prolific Canadian writer weaves poems, newspaper accounts, book excerpts and letters into a narrative so vivid and engrossing you can smell the English shaving soap, see clean sheets flapping in the breeze.
Convicted of murder at 16, Grace is imprisoned for life. The story begins as Dr. Simon Jordan of Massachusetts comes to interview her in an attempt to understand the criminally insane. "Gone mad is what they say," Grace says, "and sometimes run mad, as if mad is a direction, like west." The earnest doctor is dominated by a mother who urges him to give up on helping lunatics, invest in sewing machines and marry a well-born woman. Grace -- working class girl, murderess -- comes to fascinate him.
Simon visits her regularly at the governor's house, where she works as a trustee. The story revolves around these meetings: Grace tells her story in her coy, perfunctory manner, and he scribbles notes, occasionally pulling out objects -- a fresh apple, a candlestick -- that might trigger a memory and reveal the truth. "What he wants is certainty." But Grace claims partial memory loss. Her story runs in and out of shadows, but never smack into what satisfies the doctor as truth. "It's as if I never existed, because no trace of me remains, I have left no marks," Grace says. "And that way I cannot be followed. It is almost the same as being innocent."
Both Grace and Simon are looking for their own truth, which, we ultimately discover, is ghostly, elusive -- nothing the doctor can write neatly in his little ledger for himself or for her, or for posterity. Atwood makes their search a story for the ages.