Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Blind Assassin

I bought my first copy of The Blind Assassin in 2003, three years after it won Margaret Atwood her Booker. It had been a hardback, and I'd bought it because I got it at a huge discount. I'd read twenty-odd pages, found it too boring and tossed it aside. Recently, when I had nothing to read on the train, I spotted a copy in a second-hand bookstore and bought it on an impulse. This one was a paperback, with small print and paper redolent of cheap toilet paper, the kind they use in public toilets. After finishing the book today, I am glad that I didn't read it in 2003, when I was 18: I wouldn't have enjoyed it one bit.

The Blind Assassin has a book-within-a-book structure: it alternates between the autobiography of Iris Chase, a once-wealthy woman from a noted Canadian family, and the novel 'The Blind Assassin,' a sexual memoir/pulp fantasy that makes Iris's deceased sister Laura a literary sensation. 'The Blind Assassin' was published by Iris after Laura's suicide 'ten years after the war ended.' In a very calm tone, Iris chronicles the fall of the Chase family, her unhappy marriage and the resulting jealousies, lies and betrayals that result in one death after the other. 'The Blind Assassin,' which is sandwiched between Iris's memoir, describes a sexually-charged affair between a young woman and a left-wing man on the run. During their meetings the pair cook up a pulp fantasy set in Planet Zycron. It is a story rife with corruption, ritual sacrifices and barbaric leaders, and is similar to the Chase family story in more than one respect. 

Atwood's prose is clear, uncluttered and lyrical -- too lyrical, sometimes. Every chapter begins with a description of the Canadian weather, something which can get tiring after a point. Her use of similies and metaphors are abundant, and although they always manage to hit the nail right on the head, they are sometimes a bit too bizarre -- she, for instance, describes a loaf of bread as bland-tasting as an angel's buttock. Most of her characters are well-drawn, but they are too consistent, too one-dimensional, too flat: the forlorn sister; the always witty, always sexual, always idealistic lover; the mean, money-minded husband who rapes his wife every night; the redneck handyman who describes everything using feminine pronouns; the ideal nanny who is always faithful to the family. Also, the book is very long, and the story, although expertly crafted, isn't always engaging.

In spite of its general flabbiness, The Blind Assassin is quite an achievement. The structure of the book is close to perfect. Atwood uses newspaper clippings, the novel-within-the-novel, and the fantasy within the novel-within-the-novel to support and corroborate the main story, and their arrangement is superb. Atwood's wisdom shines through throughout the book, and she manages to paint another era with the confidence of somebody who has actually been a part of it (which might not have been the case considering she was born only in '39). I was certain the denouement would be what it turned out be, but it would be a welcome surprise for those who hadn't guessed it already. 

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