Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Blind Assassin - Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin kept me absorbed for almost two weeks. I kept itching to read it while I was in office. I stopped reading newspapers so I could spend every possible second on it.

And yet, once I had finished it, I couldn't bring myself to write about it. Why? Because there was too much to write. This book is too big for my puny self to write about.

And yet, here I am, doing exactly what I thought I wouldn't. I'm making myself do it precisely because it's the kind of book I'd like to write someday. Someday, when I've lived long enough to think I know enough to write - yes, that day.

The only book of Atwood's that I had read before was The Edible Woman, her first published novel. And if you've read it before you read her other works, you'll know it's a good book. Just that, compared to this one, it seems a little unfinished, a bit unpolished. Compared to TBA, which showcases the skills of a great writer at the height of her powers, TEW read more like the tentative first steps of a toddler.

The Blind Assassin, despite its length (over five hundred pages of close printing), is an almost unputdownable book. It can be described as being about many things - the relationship between two sisters, an illicit love, the first half of the twentieth century. But most of all, I think, it's about time. Time, and nostalgia.

The book is written, ostensibly, by Iris Chase Griffen, the elder of the two daughters of Captain Chase, head of Chase Industries. Iris is writing out her memoirs in her old age, knowing that she is close to death. She takes almost a year to do it, and each chapter begins with her reflections on old age and what she did that day, before she plunges back again into her narrative.

The great defining moment of Iris's life seems to have been the publication of a posthumous book written by her sister, Laura. Laura commits suicide shortly after writing the book, and Iris gets it published. The book overcomes its initial obscurity to become highly controversial and acclaimed, and Iris seems to have lived the rest of her life in the shadow of her sister's fame.

Iris lists out the initial glory years of her life, the luxury of being one of the children of a rich industrialist. The two sisters lived a sheltered life in a small Canadian town dominated by the Chase factories. There were misfortunes, of course - the early death of their mother, their father's war-born psychological problems and addictions, the lack of friends apart from each other. But they survive.

And then, the Depression, the loss of their money, her forced marriage at the age of eighteen to another industrialist, Richard Griffen. The ill-treatment she receives at the hands of her husband and his sister, the growing estrangement of Laura. Laura's death and later, Richard's.

Interwoven through this narrative is another one - Laura's novel. The controversy about the novel arises from its frank depiction of pre-marital sex, at a time when Canadian society was not ready for it. Though written as a novel, it is obviously autobiographical, and details the female protagonist's encounters with an unnamed male.

And from Iris's narrative, it is obvious who the male is - Alex Thomas, a communist, who comes into contact with the two sisters through one of their father's girlfriends. They meet him again after Iris marries Richard and they both shift to Toronto. Both the sisters develop an obsession with him.

The novel is powerful because of its rich detailing. Atwood builds up her narrative, block by block, word by word, layer by layer. Throughout the novel, the reader feels like there is something missing, something that is just beyond the surface. Gradually, this feeling becomes a certainty, and the turning of each page is a quest to attain this missing piece. And Atwood plays along - she keeps up the tempo, lays red herrings to confuse one.

The last few pages are both pleasurable and horrifying. Pleasurable because the truth is finally laid bare, and horrifying because the truth is what one has suspected all along.

As always with a book this good, I wanted to re-read it immediately after I finished reading the last page. To re-evaluate each incident in light of the whole story. Or, to use Orhan's Pamuk's metaphor, to re-consider each tree in the light of the whole forest.
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