Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Lorraine's Review - The Blind Assassin

This is a vastly entertaining novel in several ways as it presents four stylistically different narratives. It begins with the personal recollection by Iris Chase Griffen of her life in Port Ticonderoga, Ontario in the first half of the 20th century. We immediately learn that her younger sister, Laura Chase, has driven her car off a bridge. The description of the tragedy is relayed through a newspaper article. These articles are written in the stilted vernacular of the period and they act as a kind of newsreel binding the time line in the novel together. The other narratives are two stories in one as a couple meet covertly and share in conjuring a continuing serial about the fantasy planet of Zycron. The title of the cult novel attributed to Laura  after her death is The Blind Assassin.

I enjoyed the romance of the relationship between the lovers which stood in contrast to Iris's often stoical writing about her life. The serial had the feeling of stepping back into a childhood fairytale but one filled with sex, seduction and secret trysts. This novella is filled with a kind of morbid arch humour as when the assassin is in the temple:

“The blind assassin hauls the dead sentry out from under the bed and arranges her on the coverlet, with her scarf concealing the slash on her throat. She’s not cold yet, and has stopped dripping. Too bad if the fellow has a bright candle; otherwise, in the night all cats are grey. Temple maidens are trained to manifest inertia. It might take the man – hampered as he is by his ponderous god costume, which traditionally includes a helmet and visor – some time to discover he’s fucking the wrong woman, and a dead one at that.”

The novel has a complex start with multiple dimensions and viewpoints but I felt it was well worth pursuing. I was always tantalized by knowing what lay ahead through the clippings and Atwood gives the reader a partial omniscient perspective by revealing these glimpses of the future.

I found the writing remarkable. There are certain passages like the death of the girls’ mother where you know there are so many things going on under the surface of the girls’ experience of the events of her death:

“Mother died five days later. She died of a fever; also of being weak, because she could not manage to get her strength back, said Reenie. During this time the doctor came and went, and a succession of crisp, brittle nurses occupied the easy chair in the bedroom. Reenie hurried up and down the stairs with basins, with towels, with cups of broth. Father shuttled relentlessly back and forth to the factory, and appeared at the dinner table haggard as a beggar. Where had he been, that afternoon when he could not be found? Nobody said.”

This prose encapsulates the cold shuttling relationships in the family and the lack of love in the girls’ lives. They grow up essentially alone and are shuffled later into a forced life by their father and his chief competitor, Richard Griffen (who is Iris’ dreadful husband). Their only escape – like many women - is their private hidden life. The novel reminded me slightly of Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel as the narrators -Hagar and Iris – are near the ends of their lives and looking backwards. They are both from privileged backgrounds in small communities and are unvanquished despite their life experiences.

Iris is quietly observant and acidly funny as when she describes her physician:

“The doctor tapped my ribs and eavesdropped on my heart, and frowned and then cancelled his frown, and then – having made up his mind about it – asked me how I was feeling. I believe he has done something to his hair; surely he used to be thinner on top. Has he been indulging in the gluing on of strands across his scalp? Or worse, transplantation? Aha, I thought. Despite your jogging and the hairiness of your legs, the shoe of aging is beginning to pinch. Soon you’ll regret all that sun-tanning. Your face will look like a testicle.”

The Blind Assassin is a rewarding, surprising and rich reading experience.


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