Monday, April 7, 2008

The Blind Assassin: A Many-Layered Story

As with the other books I've read by Margaret Atwood, the reader is kept in the dark for a good portion of The Blind Assassin. Atwood tends to tell a story layer by layer, letting the reader get to the heart of the situation slowly, as if they're eating an artichoke. And, like an artichoke, you're never disappointed when you finally get to the good part, but sometimes it can be a lot of work getting there. I felt like The Blind Assassin was one of those times when it was a lot of work, perhaps because I wasn't as curious about where the story was going as I have been with her other books (Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid's Tale).

The book opens with the death of Laura Chase, the daughter of a once-influential family in Port Ticonderoga, Canada, in 1945. We then read a chapter of a book written by Laura Chase and published post-humously by her sister, Iris (hence the cover and reviewer's constant talk of "a novel within a novel"). From then on, the book switches back and forth between excerpted chapters of that book, The Blind Assassin, and Iris' telling of her family's history, the events that led up to the writing of the book, and her sister's suicide.

The book is really interesting, but I didn't find myself as drawn into it as I have been with other Atwood books – at least not until about 150 pages in, when we begin to see some of the layers begin to fall off more quickly. As I began to understand what was really going on, I began to get more and more curious about how the book was going to end and I found myself reading more and more quickly. But up until that point it was really hard going. Had I not read other Atwood books and understood her style of writing, I may have given up on this book after 50 pages or so. For this reason, I wouldn't recommend this as your first Atwood book (especially considering this book is more than 500 pages long!).

However, there are many things I like about this book. I liked that it was a historical novel, covering high society in Canada from about 1910 to 1947. And as with other Atwood books, I liked the social commentary, especially, in this book, about God.

For instance, on page 137 after her mother dies, Laura, age 8 at the time, begins to question God in a way she had never done before:

"In the nighttimes Laura would creep into my room and shake me awake, then climb into bed with me. She couldn't sleep: it was because of God. Up until the funeral, she and God had been on good terms ... But now she was no longer sure. She began to fret about God's exact location. It was the Sunday-school teacher's fault: God is everywhere, she'd said, and Laura wanted to know: was God in the sun, was God in the moon, was God in the kitchen, the bathroom, was he under the bed? ... Laura didn't want God popping out at her unexpectedly, not hard to understand considering his recent behaviour."

I love this simplistic, child's look at who and where God is, along with what his purpose is. Atwood recognizes this human trait of questioning God and the difficulty children sometimes have with just accepting faith because they sometimes take things too literally, especially where religion is concerned.

Atwood is a great story teller, and I wouldn't want anyone to miss out on her beautifully described scenes and wonderfully written stories, however I'd suggest starting with a different one of her books before taking on The Blind Assassin. If you insist though, be aware that it will take awhile before the plot really begins to come out. Atwood is not the type to take the plot and conk you on the head with it. Her books are very mysterious in this way and you begin to feel like a detective as you start to piece it together for yourself. My favorite part is finding out if I've got it right. With her books though, there's always some last minute turn that really surprises me and sticks with me, so look out!


Trish said...

Great review--I love that Atwood doesn't "conk you on the head" with her plot/story/writing. This one was work--especially the first part, like you said, but I really enjoyed it. Was a little disappointed that I guessed the ending, but it was still fun to see if I was right. Thanks for coming by earlier!

Anonymous said...

I gave up after ten pages and I won't be trying again after your helpful review. I can't hold a whole story in my head at once, partly because I have several books on the go and also I tend to leave them for a while. so it's not very appealing to have to "be" Agatha while reading this!