January 27, 1997 12:00 PM

by Margaret Atwood

In 1843, in a criminal case that would become one of Canada’s most notorious, a young servant woman named Grace Marks was convicted of murdering her employer and a fellow servant who was his mistress. A century and a half later, novelist Atwood has turned her prodigious imaginative powers on the question of Grace’s guilt or innocence. Did she love her master and kill out of jealousy? Or did James McDermott, the servant who was convicted with her, do the deeds alone?

Told alternately in Grace’s voice and in the words of Simon Jordan, a physician (and Atwood invention) assigned to examine her in prison, the novel offers a gripping narrative combined with the author’s characteristically acute psychological and social observations.

Beaten as a child by her drunken father, traumatized some years later by the postabortion death of her only friend (a fellow servant impregnated by her employer’s son), Grace has spent her life at the mercy of circumstances. She may have snapped, or, powerless as she is, she might just as easily have been framed. Jordan—whose bumbling inquiry involves bringing Grace root vegetables so she will recall the cellar where the murders took place—never gets enlightened, and Grace, who claims amnesia, may really not know.

Pondering the idea of a pardon after decades in prison, she worries about becoming “an object of pity rather than of horror…. It calls for a different arrangement of the face.” Villain or victim, Atwood’s Grace is intriguing company. (Doubleday, $24.95)

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