I really didn’t expect to come away impressed this time, specially when I was still crawling slower than a snail through the book a 100 pages down – but Jesus, this woman knows how to spin her tales, for just when I was beginning to desultorily flip the pages and start preparing myself to either trudge through the book or abandon it completely, she reached out and ensnared me in the fine web of her words. I put the book down a couple of hours back, and I knew the smile on my face mirrored pure content. I’ve just spent the last one hour reading about the history behind the novel and am craving more fodder to feed this hunger.
The novel, is based on a true story – the protagonist Grace Marks, has been modeled after a woman of the same name in the 19th century who was convicted for murdering her employers in the most brutal fashion. A sensational story in its time; it captured the attention, imagination and curiosity of people across Canada, USA and UK and kept the presses running hot for months at end. The novel takes off rather peacefully, gradually building up its pace and pulling you deeper into its whorls. Sticking quite faithfully to contemporary reality, Atwood presents 19th century Canadian society, struggling to find its feet with the shadow of its past looming large over it, and the big brother from down south ever ready to stamp down its burgeoning identity. In a time when poverty ran rampant and standards of morality were flexible, the country convicted a young girl for murder, painting her as black as they could, even while they struggled painstakingly to bleach clean their own dirty linen – the forays into an every-increasingly open world of psychology and science which clashed openly with old beliefs and superstitions about the mind, make the novel all the more interesting.
I can’t say this one impressed me as much as the previous three - the plot, could have been tightened a little, specially at the beginning, where I feel she has spent too much time trying to build up her characters. However, the characters truly stand out on their own – every last one of them, even the non-descript Ms Faith Cartwright who only appears as a mention in letters. Dr Simon, the doctor who set out to understand the mysteries of the mind and ended up losing his way in its labyrinth; Nancy Montgomery, the housekeeper with a murky past and murkier present; Thomas Kinnear, the apparently gentile man who paid for his sins; Mary Whitney, whose vibrant presence first lit up the plot and whose shadow haunts it right up to the last page…and ofcourse Grace Marks, who struggles above the squalor and misery of her world, pulled down time and again - she does succeed in finding peace at the end.
The historical details and characters did the trick this time – read it if you have a taste for historical novels with strong characters, and if you have a feel for Canada’s social, spiritual and political history.
Links for Extra Reading :-
Letter written in 1843 describing the murder
Grace Mark’s interview after she was released from prison