So, it has taken me quite a while to read this book but for a variety of good reasons. Its a long book for my delicate reading ability and wandering eyes and in the initial stages there is a lot going on. I already flick back and forth through chapters as I read, but for a good chunk of time I had to flick back and forth – not everyone will need to work out so rapidly who they think is who and why they are telling a story in this way, but I had no other option but to deduce these things, otherwise my head may have exploded. This could have been partially due to being a little bit of a busy bee of late (or distracted, either way it amounts to the same hill of beans) and not having huge amounts of long, slovenly reading time which I would have adored nothing but. This book asks for time. It asks to be taken seriously and slowly, after all it is Margaret Atwood and to rush over her beautiful prose is to miss out on some of the finest quality you will ever encounter.
I am always in awe and wonder when I read an Atwood, how the detail is woven so carefully and discretely, how each tale is steeped in layers and layers of interest, how her cynicism and wit cuts through everything to ponder her own philosophical bent and just how to twist an intriguing journey in and out of the watcher’s eye. I am aware that this book won the 2000 Booker Prize, but you can rest easy now that my opinion is set – its a masterpiece. Not to everyone’s cup of tea because it is quite slow in the going and the disjointed nature of alternating chapters may not satisfy those who like the flow, but for me, the swapping and changing of narrative is fascinating, cleverly done. And the pace is not an issue because it allows you to identify all those singular lines of brilliance which sparkle through life’s darkness like a diamond studded sky. I do not feel I am over-egging this point, I hasten to add. There were moments when all I could do was sit back in stunned silence as I revelled in the stark honesty and intelligence used in these little gems.
There are technically three stories running through this book each written in contrasting styles. The first is Iris’ tale, of her upbringing and that of her sister who tragically dies too young – I have hardly given anything away here, you know this fact from the get go. However, despite knowing the end from the start it is surely proof of amazing writing that I still found myself in tears when the event transpired. I felt my heart break as the dread and clarity took hold. Iris’ long story is a sour one, one in which you feel frustrated and angry even though you know full well how such a situation evolved – it actually made me think a little of Du Maurier’s Rebecca in which I wanted to scream at the heroine to grow some form of back bone and confidence. Iris Chase is far from being as withered and wimpy but still lacking – however, as with the other Mrs De Winter, not through poor writing, it is utterly deliberate. The story is told in hindsight and, of course with the beauty of it, Iris’ (or Atwood’s) sharp social comments also chastise this weaker self and mourn the fact that reality was grasped just that little bit too late.
The second thread is that of star crossed lovers of a sort. Lost in a world that seems to have no place for them they meet wherever and whenever they can, covertly away from eyes that may ruin them both. The pair are running away from various demons and trying to give some sense to the madness which threatens to devour them. There are of course plans to escape their current paths but inevitably, tragedy and loss get in the way. Although a little crude to reflect the settings forced upon them, the stylising of these scenes is beautiful. Set during the mid-war period, the depiction of clothing and society is integral and sets the remarkable contrast which ultimately keeps our lovers worlds apart.
Within this tale is the third instalment, The Blind Assassin. Set not in this world but that of the mystical sci-fi land of Sakiel-Norn, this is the lynch pin which brings all the elements together. The author’s work is of a deep melancholy which threatens to bring no happy ending, in fact it appears that he alone does not rely on the belief that everything will be ok, somehow. Young boys on Sakiel-Norn are taken at an early age to weave wondrous cloths for the rich and wealthy. These items are of such intricate beauty that eventually the boys lose their sight entirely, only to be cast aside like so much of our wasteful consumerism today. There is little option left; they become objects for seedy ‘professions’ or beaten beggars, unless they train for their final and ultimate role – that of a silent, deadly assassin. The story of The Blind Assassin follows these happenings in this alternate universe, yet they never seem too far away from the world inhabited by Iris Chase and her sister Laura.
If that is not enough for you, Atwood treats you to some alternate genres of writing in the form of newspaper and magazine articles interspersed between the pages. If you are wondering how the hell all these elements meld together to form one coherent novel then all you can do is give it a go. You will know within 100 pages if you can see through to the tragic conclusion, and I suspect it will be the seemingly broken pieces of narrative which will keep you gripped. There is an element of excitement involved, even for such a pace, just because you need to know what precisely is going on! I found it fascinating, and as I said at the top, a true masterpiece of modern fiction.
For literary analysts among you, those who love to delve into layers of meaning, philosophy and God, this book is a dream. I am not qualified or smart enough to draw contrasts between this work and the rules of society that Atwood is blatantly attacking, but if that’s your bent, have a dig through this – I swear there would be enough to keep any discussion group going for a year!