In Margaret Atwood’s brilliant new novel of nineteenth-century Canada there is a character called Jeremiah, a pedlar, whose diverse and enticing wares are welcomed in almost any house. Some of his linens and ribbons are new, and some are what is now known as ‘previously owned’, but all are crisp, fresh and desirable. The pedlar can also eat fire, tell fortunes and talk with the dead. Jeremiah is the one with whom Atwood identifies. Her variety is dazzling; she meanders, yet travels with a purpose; she can also put on magic shows.
Her main character is Grace Marks, a murderess. Grace thinks: ‘It has a smell to it, that word – musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, Murderess.’ It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor.’