Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Rating: 4 Stars

2000 Booker Prize

This isn’t a feel good book. Never mind; it has other things going for it.

For starters there is its technical virtuosity. Atwood has taken an outmoded literary device – the epistolary novel - and imbued it with a savage new life. While the novel is certainly open to feminist interpretations, the author’s approach is iconoclastic in its demolition of fondly-held notions of family, religion, and marriage. That makes for a prickly, uncomfortable read; but artistes’ integrity lies is in staying true to their vision, not in pandering to the fickle caprices of the audience.

The plot is like a matryoshka doll, apparently nesting several stories within the main frame. The narrative opens in the 1940s, ‘ten days after the war ended’. Iris Chase hears of the tragic death of her younger sister, Laura, in a car accident. We learn over the course of the novel that Laura has achieved posthumous fame with the publication of the scandalous (for its time) book, ‘The Blind Assassin’. Iris, several years later, though physically frail, is indomitable and clear-minded in her old age as she never was in her youth. Part of the story is her recollection of her life as she writes it down for an estranged grandchild.

Part of it are also excerpts from ‘The Blind Assassin’ - a story of a young society woman involved with a man on the wrong side of the law, though his crime is never made explicit. The couple meet in various different locations each having their own reasons for being very careful. The word ‘love’ is not mentioned in their trysts, and they are often cruel or callous; yet, their need for one another, even if not always tender, is genuine and palpable.

The third story is the science-fiction tale with which the young man entertains his lover – a fantasy world of oppressive social stratification, sexual deviancy, and a perverted religion based on sacrificial rituals. Even under these unconducive circumstances, there are two unlikely people who fall in love seeking a redemption from the sordid reality of their lives.

Each story is engrossing enough on its own. Atwood’s ingenuity lies in her one-woman enactment of the triple Moirai in spinning the narrative; keeping the skeins from unraveling; and, swiftly and ruthlessly tying the threads together for a truly brilliant yarn.

“…All she has left is the picture. Also the story of it.

The picture is of happiness, the story not. Happiness is a garden walled with glass: there’s no way in or out. In Paradise there are no stories, because there are no journeys. It’s loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward, along its twisted road.”

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