Thursday, 4 April 2013

The Blind Assassin - Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin opens with these simple, resonant words: "Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge." 

They are spoken by Iris, whose terse account of her sister's death in 1945 is followed by an inquest report proclaiming the death accidental. But just as the reader expects to settle into Laura's story, Atwood introduces a novel-within-a-novel. Entitled The Blind Assassin, it is a science fiction story told by two unnamed lovers who meet in dingy backstreet rooms. When we return to Iris, it is through a 1947 newspaper article announcing the discovery of a sailboat carrying the dead body of her husband, a distinguished industrialist. 

Brilliantly weaving together such seemingly disparate elements, Atwood creates a world of astonishing vision and unforgettable impact.

As you may remember, I'm on a bit of a Margaret Atwood kick. I'm determined to read way more of her books as she's absolutely brilliant and it was a shame I never read her before earlier this year. I've read two now and Blind Assassin was next on my list.

I was blown away by The Blind Assassin. Atwood manages to interweave three very different narrative styles: newspaper clippings, a novel within the novel and the unedited and private memoirs of an elderly woman to create one captivating story that never quite reveals where it's going until the ultimate last page.

The story follows the Chase sisters: born into money in a well-to-do family just before the Great Depression, the sisters grow up with each other. Iris, the older sister, is our narrator from the future, as she contemplates her life and the choices that have been made to bring her where she is today.
Laura, the younger, is posthumously famous for a book that had written before her death, a book that changed a lot of things (and that we get to read as the novel within the novel.)

The best part of Blind Assassin is how the plot weaves and sinks in on itself. Things that you think you know for sure within the first few pages become utterly disproven by the last few. Things are mentioned more than once, giving new connections to previous events and new ways of reading the text. Iris isn't always letting on about everything.

The book is beautifully written, the prose absolutely gorgeous. One of my favorite bits is while Iris is on her honeymoon in Paris and sees a bidet for the first time. After her husband explains what it is to her, she thinks, '…They do understand something the others don't, the French. They understand the anxiety of the body. At least they admit it exists.'  Later, when she is comforted by a French waiter she remarks on his understanding, 'The French are connoisseurs of sadness, they know all the kinds. That is why they have bidets.' Just a little part that stuck with me and really shows the depth and the beauty of language of this book.

It won the Booker. It's ridiculously readable. If you have some time, pick it up. It's lovely and mysterious.

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