It is April, 1851, and twenty-three-year-old Grace Marks is about to begin her eighth year of imprisonment in the Kingston Penitentiary. Grace describes walking around the walled-in prison yard, hallucinating about peonies growing from the gravel. Her hallucination expands: she sees Nancy Montgomery kneeling on the ground in front of her, blood streaming from her head and a kerchief tied around her neck. Nancy smiles—“only the mouth,” Grace says—and then she explodes into red flower petals made of cloth, and Grace appears to lose consciousness. The chapter ends with Grace saying, “This is what I told Dr. Jordan, when we came to that part of the story.”
On a plot level, this opening chapter not only captures the reader’s attention, but also establishes the fact that this strange hallucination/memory is only part of a much larger story. In this way, this chapter subtly establishes the importance of context and the critical role that an understanding of surrounding details plays in being able to interpret a larger story. This chapter also raises the related questions of what is real, and how reliable of a narrator Grace is. Finally, it firmly establishes Grace’s confident, almost seductive powers as a storyteller.