Friday, April 17, 2009

The Blind Assassin - Margaret Atwood

So finally I have gotten to the point where I can review what was meant to be the first book in the Savidge Reads Big Weekenders. However I think it is better to say that this is the book that inspired the Big Weekenders, as even devoting some long reading hours to it this simply isn’t a book you can indulge yourself with over one weekend. I have only read one Atwood book before this two, maybe three years ago, The Handmaid’s Tale, which I loved. I tried reading The Robber Bride but for some reason couldn’t get into it, then I tried this book three years ago and 15 pages in my Gran told me the ending so I have waited to forget it. Would I manage to read the whole book unlike last time? Would I love my second dalliance with Margaret, especially such a long one that has so much to say?

I don’t think that however long I made this review of Margaret Atwood’s Man Booker Winner ‘The Blind Assassin' I could ever hope to cover all the book is trying to say, the themes it covers, the many voices it has. I actually think a task like that with a book like this would be impossible. That isn’t a cop out at all as I am going to try mu hardest to condense everything I have taken away from what is a magnificent book but by no means an easy book. I have actually been really surprised at how many people have said to me ‘oh I didn’t like that book at all’ and ‘oh it’s Atwood’s worst, it really is’ I can see why people make the first comment, I whole heartedly disagree with them but I can see why people might not like this book. If the latter comment is true after reading this book I could easily become an Atwood-a-holic as if this is her worst her best will be mind blowing.

The Blind Assassin starts with Iris Chase describing and remembering her sister Laura’s death after she drove herself off a bridge. From this dark and interesting start we are told the story in alternating parts. Iris narrates her own personal history, the story of her sisters life and their backgrounds that made them who they are. The other parts are told through Laura’s very own novel ‘The Blind Assassin’ (so a book within a book) published after her early death along with newspaper cuttings about the Chase Sisters and events in their lives. Has that confused anyone? It confused me a little at first especially as the Laura’s book ‘The Blind Assassin’ (the book within Atwood’s book) has a character who tells another story, so a story within the story within the story, that is set in a foreign world (which I thought had shades of The Handmaid’s Tale) and is like a dark science fiction like fairy tale, wonderful. Do not let the confusion or the words ‘science fiction’ put you off as I promise you persevere with this book and it pays off in dividends. It just needs some effort from the reader, but should every book no matter what you read.

As all these different elements are woven together so wonderfully by Atwood we see a picture emerging, however the picture changes dependent on who’s version you here until finally you think the full picture has formed and then it shifts slightly, that’s all I will say. Through the narration of Iris in particular, who is a wonderful slightly outrageous and sarcastic old lady compared to her timid youth “I’m not senile… if I burn the house down it will be on purpose”, we get a history of Canada and its changes in the 20th century, a look at how companies were taken over and ruined, and the rights of women and how they have changed. Like I said to cover every subject, theme or voice in this particular book in one review after only one full read through of the book I would say is pretty much impossible.

Along the way through happy and dark times, different voices and 633 pages of quite small print Atwood also treats us to a host of wonderful characters. Be they the tongue-less mute and her Blind Assassin in the fairytale, to the wonderful characters in both Iris and Laura Clarke’s lives such as the firm but fair housekeeper Reenie or Iris’ awful but wonderful to read sister-in-law Winifred. There is a whole host of wonderful characters to keep you reading on, and I will admit for some reason pages 200 – 300 were a strange struggle for me but the characters kept me going and I am so, so glad they did.

I would recommend this book to everyone and anyone. I am aware some people will think I must be crazy. My advice would be take it slowly, persevere and don’t see this book as a book to race through so you have read a Man Booker, or read one of Atwood’s biggest books (both in length and in sales) relax with it and work at it, you’ll be glad you did, I was.

14 comments:

farmlanebooks said...

I'm one of those people who wasn't really taken with this book.

It was OK. I didn't hate it, but it didn't really move me, and the book within a book thing didn't really work for me.

I didn't dislike it - it was just "very average". This is the only Atwood book I've read so far, but will be reading her other ones at some point. I'm glad you liked it though!

Sandy Nawrot said...

As I think I've said before, this book has been on my list for some time. I guess I knew it wasn't a romp, and that it was fairly long, which may be why I haven't gotten to it yet. I just needed a nudge, which you have given me. I need to plan carefully when I will read it. I absolutely find myself in certain moods now and again, when I NEED something like this to stimulate my mind. There are other times when I have no patience for such a thing. Thanks for the review...I know it wasn't easy!

Molly said...

I found this book in the clearance section of a local used bookstore and had to buy it, but I have not yet had the chance to read it. I loved your review and hopefully I will find the time to read it this summer - when I can truly savor all she is trying to say.

gautami tripathy said...

It took me a while to get into the novel but once I did I couldn't put it down.

Recently I read another Atwood, The Robber Bride. That is very different from this.

I am linking your review with mine. If you Here is my review of The Blind Assassin, in case you decide to link it here.

Teresa said...

I liked this book quite a bit. In fact, I've liked every Atwood book I've read, except Alias Grace, which I thought fizzled out in the final third.

Atwood writes excellent relationship fiction (Cat's Eye is my favorite in that vein) and speculative fiction (like The Handmaid's Tale), but the neat thing about The Blind Assassin is how well she juggled the two different kinds of stories
.

claire said...

I've only read Cat's Eye and some of her short stories and poetry, but this has been on my wishlist a long time. Just waiting for the chance to score it in the used bookshops he he. I'm so glad you loved it, which means I have a good chance to love it, too. :D

candyschultz said...

I have this book and you have interested me enough to try it in the near future but if you liked The Handmaid's Tale which I hated then we might have different ideas books entirely. I also read Oryx and Crake. It was as bleak and despairing as Handmaid. But never give up is my motto.

Savidge Reads said...

Jackie - seriously give The Handmaids Tale a go I propmise you it is so so worth it.

Sandy - I would take this on any long train/plane trip in all honesty as then you have a lot of time to devote to it or on a beach or something.

Gautami - I shall check your review and comment later on promise! I foudn the first part a slight struggle but not too much it was the pages 200 - 300 that almost, but not quite, caused me to give up.

Teresa - what you have said about her juggling those two aspects of the book is 110% spot on, why couldnt I have worded it like that?

Claire - Atwood is oddly one of the hardest authors to find in my neck of the woods in charity and second hand shops which is a real pain. I am gonna have to read all her work.

Candy - I would say that the only bits of Blind Assassin that reminded me of The Handmaid's Tale are the book within the book, and those parts are very brief and every other part.

Juxtabook said...

I loved this book from cover to cover, but I can see it might be an individual taste. your review was excellent especially for those on the fence about Atwood and her style of literary fiction.

denise said...

I just finished the book this afternoon, and I can't stop thinking about it. When I closed it on the last page I knew I would read it again, more slowly. More than anything, I love her writing for its language, but the story so gripped me that I had to read it more quickly than I wanted to. I'm awestruck by her talent.

Elaine said...

Once I started this book I found I became more and more drawn into it. It is not an easy read, by no means, with its layers of story and text and not sure I would ever read it again, and not sure I even 'like' it very much, but it really is fascinating. I love the story within a story within a story device though it certainly makes the reader need to concentrate totally on what is going on. What helped when I read this was that I was visiting Toronto and organising a conference there, and the Fairmont Hotel where some of the scenes in the book were set, was where I was staying and this really made a difference.

My favourite outof MA that I have read so far is, however, Alias Grace which I think is a terrific book.

Savidge Reads said...

Juxtabook - Thank you so much for that comment thats really kind. I definately loved it overall, the more I think about it now the more I am in awe of it if that makes sense?

Denise - I know what you mean. I will definately read it again as I think you can take so many different things from Atwoods writing each time.

Elaine - Alias Grace has stormed up my TBR after you have said you have loved it as your views on books are spot on so thanks for the advice. I also must re-try The Robber Bride.

Elaine said...

Oh Simon I am flattered by your trust in my recommendations! I hope you find Alias Grace to your liking. It is my favourite of the Atwoods I have read so far.

jeronimus said...

I have just finished TBA and am totally in awe. It's my first proper taste of Atwood's writing, and I am blown away by the fascinating wit, perception, pathos and poetry.
She is a mistress of tone.
I would suggest people persevere with it - it might take some readers a while to get into it. I'm not sure I would have if I'd read it at a less mature stage in my reading life.
The only slight problem I had was that the male characters were a bit hard to relate to. I didn't really care much what happened to them, except hoping Richard would get his just desserts. Maybe Margaret missed a chance to grip the reader more by making Alex more 3D. The SF story-within-a-story-within-a-story was a bit tedious for me. It did help illuminate the attitudes of Iris and Alex, and explain how she might have got into the habit of writing, but, in itself, it lacked much interest. I was impelled to read on because Iris and Laura are so rounded and sympathetic, I wanted to know what happened to them. I would have been gripped even more it Alex and the Blind Assassin, of the title had been more real. But this is probably expecting too much. I'm not saying it's an anti-male book - afterall the real villain is a female. I am a fan of good SF but in some ways wished the pulp story had been left out.
Nevertheless, possibly one of the best 20 books I've ever read, and one I hope to re-read several times.