There are no fewer than five epigraphs by way of introduction; it is understandable that Margaret Atwood should hesitate on the brink, before launching herself into the powerful currents of her latest novel. Her chapter headings take their titles from the names of quilt patterns. This would be a worn and dangerously cosy device, if the names themselves were not so shudderingly evocative. There is peril here: Jagged Edge, Snake Fence. There is woman’s fallibility, woman’s fate: Broken Dishes, Secret Drawer, Rocky Road. There is destruction: Falling Timbers. And woman’s primal guilt: Pandora’s Box.
The thing about quilts, suggests Grace, the protagonist, is that what you see depends on whether you look at the dark pieces or the light. Grace is an expert quilter, and so is Atwood. Our experience, our very consciousness, is fragmented and can be rearranged, she suggests; your perception of the past is likewise a thing of shreds and patches. This is a story of murder and memory, a chilling horror story, almost a story of possession; it is also a novel of ideas, where intellect and passion are finely hand-stitched, revealing their ultimate effect only when some 500 pages are shaken out and the dazzling design shows, in all the glory of its pattern, texture, and color.
We are in Canada; when the book opens it is 1851, Grace Marks is twenty-three and shut up in Kingston Penitentiary. Grace is a murderess. She thinks: “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.”
Grace was a child of sixteen when she was tried and sentenced to hang for the murder of her employer, Mr. Thomas Kinnear. A clever lawyer got her sentence commuted, pleading her youth, her supposed witlessness; it was a near thing, for the tide of opinion had run strongly against her, and she would almost certainly have been hanged if she had been tried for a second murder, that of Nancy Montgomery, Mr. Kinnear’s housekeeper-mistress. But the second trial did not take place, as Grace and her accomplice had both been sentenced to death already, and it was deemed quite sufficient to hang a person once.
Grace was from a poor family, Irish immigrants; her mother died on the ship, her father was a brute, she escaped her family only by selling herself into virtual domestic slavery. It is a hard tale, told without sentimentality. “Only the usual poverty and hardships, etc.” says Dr. Jordan, a practitioner of the nascent psychological sciences, who visits Grace in the penitentiary.
After taking various jobs in Toronto, Grace had a stroke of luck. She met up with Nancy, bouncing and cheerful, who wanted an underservant in her employer’s house in the country. The pay was good, said Nancy, and the master easygoing. With some regrets for city life, Grace drove out …