There’s nothing like the spectacle of female villainy brought to justice to revive the ancient, tired, apparently endless debate over whether women are by nature saintly or demonic. Unleashed by ghastly visions of the angel of the house clutching a knife or pistol, a swarm of Furies rises shrieking from our collective unconscious, along with a flock of martyrs. Meanwhile, our vengeful passions or pious sympathies are never so aroused as when the depraved criminal or unjustly slandered innocent happens to be touchingly young and attractive.
One such alleged miscreant — a double murderess, no less — is at the heart of Margaret Atwood’s ambitious new novel, ”Alias Grace.” Its protagonist is a historical figure, the notorious Grace Marks, a handsome but hapless Irish immigrant who worked as a scullery maid in Toronto in the 1840’s. At the age of 16, she was convicted of abetting the brutal murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his pregnant housekeeper and paramour, Nancy Montgomery. The question of Grace’s innocence or guilt has always been in some doubt — a matter that Ms. Atwood deftly re-examines through the lens of what we have since learned about the traumatized psyche.
I remember this book as a favorite, but it’s been several years since I read it. I hope it’s as good the second time around. After all: spontaneous murder, gender bias, questionable psychology, illicit affairs, what more could we as for?