Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin

Cover of the novel

Cover of the novel

*1001 Books Book (2006)

Atwood, M. (2000). The blind assassin. New York: N.A. Talese.

With as much as I have read about Margaret Atwood, it has taken a surprisingly long time for me to read any of her works. This and the intriguing book cover encouraged me to read The Blind Assassin.

Many reviews describe The Blind Assassin as being like a Russian nesting doll; a story within a story that is within yet another story. It is definitely like peeling an onion, reading The Blind Assassin. The novel weaves between various plot lines. However, I do promise that it is rather like a fractal and that are worthwhile. After all, it takes all the pieces to form the picture of The Blind Assassin. Atwood managed to integrate elements of Southern Ontario Gothic, Historical Fiction (1900s, 1930s, 1940s, etc), Mystery, Character Study, and Science Fiction into one slow burn of a novel.

The story begins with young wife Iris Chase Griffen saying, “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge” (Atwood, 1). With sparse detail about this event, the reader is next taken to a report of Laura Chase’s death. Beyond this point, there are more news reports on deaths, including that of Iris’ powerful industrialist husband’s body being found a boat in 1947. This is where the reader discovers a book by Laura Chase was posthumously published. After the articles, the reader is taken headlong into to Laura’s work “The Blind Assassin.” “The Blind Assassin” tells the story of a pulp fiction writer and his girlfriend, a young unhappy wife. The pulp fiction writer makes up a story for his lover, also called “The Blind Assassin.” Beyond this point is yet another narrative, it is that of the aged, chilly Iris of eighty-two years of age in 1999.

Iris’ somewhat embittered voice dominates the novel. Through her scope, I found Iris to be a survivor. The unusual and delicate well-being of Laura brings much responsibility to Iris. On the one hand, it seems Iris is cold and careless with her fragile little sister. Otherwise, I find it unfair how Iris was made to take care of Laura simply because no one else did. Whether it is Iris’ nature or it is her upbringing is obviously debatable. Nonetheless, her biting wit and edge make her easily identifiable and sympathetic to me.

I am proud to say that I read this book. The coldness and cruelty of several characters within gave me chills and some weird dreams. Imagining this wicked glint of some characters that shall remain nameless made me sad. Atwood is definitely a master of her craft and I could see her characters and situations all too well. The Blind Assassin is well written but not exactly what I call an enjoyable read.

Three out of Five Pearls

PS (September 02, 2008) When I found out this had been removed from the 1001 Books List, I could have kicked Boxall and myself in one fell swoop. Ugh!

Places: Port Ticonderoga, Canada; Toronto, Canada; Europe; New York, NewYork

Apologize and Atonement by Ian McEwan

* 1001 Books Book

Cover shows the old, dreary Tallis house.

Cover shows the old, dreary Tallis house.

McEwan, I., & Tanner, J. (2002). Atonement. Prince Fredrick, MD: Recorded Books.

Seeing the blurbs for the movie based on this book and hearing OneRepublic’s “Apologize” immediately influenced me to request Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Having heard much about the author, I was curious to how well McEwan could deliver. Soon, the audiobook was telling me the story in my car.

It’s a hot summer day in 1935 England. The upper class Tallis household abounds with activity, especially the young, thirteen year old Briony. Briony is an aspiring writer with a great imagination. She has just penned a play for her grown brother Leon’s homecoming. She desperately wants her cousins, the stunning Lola, and twin boys Jackson and Pierrot, to perform her play, The Trials of Arabella. Feeling her thunder stolen by Lola, Briony just happens to see something going on at the fountain between her older sister Cecilia and the charlady’s son, Robbie Turner. Only viewing and not hearing the exchange between the two Cambridge students, Briony holds sinister suspicions. Ditching her play and her cousins, Briony’s imagination runs away with her.

Meanwhile, the focus of the novel shifts to and from various points of view, including the seeming dilettante Cecilia, the intelligent and scholarly Robbie, and the wise, migraine plagued matriarch, Emily Tallis. These views elucidate for the reader what has actually happened. The evening arrives, bringing on the entrance of playboy Leon and social equal Paul Marshall. When there is a nasty turn of events that night, Briony jumps to conclusions, changing the lives of all present at the Tallis household that summer evening in 1935. From this point onward, Briony longs for atonement.

Like many a psyche, Atonement is a very complex. Divided into four parts, the novel delves into the thoughts and motives behind numerous characters. Also, the book deals with numerous issues; social implications, morality, guilt, and responsibility. The dimension brought to Briony Tallis simply amazed me. In Atonement, the reader meets Briony as a child, a young adult, and a septuagenarian. In each phase, Briony is different and yet the same. Latter parts of the book illustrate World War II scenes of Dunkirk and a hospital in London with sharp clarity.

Another part of Atonement I admired was how Briony’s actions in 1935 resonate throughout the rest of the book. Responsibility as a human and as a writer becomes piercingly acute. Whether or not she gains much desired atonement is open for interpretation.

Nonetheless, I was not crazy about the choppy transitions from Part I to Parts II and III. Part I gave readers such as myself insight on the thoughts of many. After Part I, several of the characters react almost implausibly or evaporate by Part II. While I appreciated the introduction to Cecilia’s great intellect, Robbie’s tenderness, and even Briony’s shame, I missed other characters such as Emily Tallis and the cousins in other parts of the book.

Atonement is a book I will not soon forget. The plot twists, the conception of characters, the peppering of other works of literature throughout Atonement, etc, etc make for a moving read. This book has definitely raised the bar for many others.

Despite the ending, I give the book 4 out of 5 Pearls.

Places: Cambridge University, Dunkirk, London, UK

Music Brought to Mind: “Apologize” by OneRepublic

A Turn of the Wheels; Katherine by Anya Seton

Goodreads | Katherine by Anya Seton

Seton, A., & Gregory, P. (2004). Katherine a novel. Chicago, Ill:Chicago Review Press. 9781556525322

Katherine tells the story of actual Katherine Swynford (neé de Roet), a pivotal player in the history of English royalty. In the Fourteenth Century, lady in-waiting to Queen Philippa, Philippa de Roet sends for her younger sister, Katherine. Katherine de Roet has been living at a small, country convent. With the prioress, Katherine makes the journey to London. Innocent Katherine takes the London court by storm with her beauty. She comes to the attention of rough knight, Hugh Swynford, and John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and fourth son of the king and Blanche, the Duchess of Lancaster. Katherine more than reluctantly marries Swynford but the Lancasters do not forget Katherine. In a few years, while John of Gaunt and Swynford are dealing with the 100 Years War, a plague claims many victims including Blanche of Lancaster. However, Katherine eases Blanche’s suffering and finds a priest to administer the Duchess’s last rites. In grief, John of Gaunt takes notice of the lovely Katherine and gives her her own coat of arms, bearing three wheels which signify St. Catherine and Katherine’s maiden name, de Roet. From there, the relationship escalates into an affair which has stunning and long lasting effects on not only their contemporaries but their descendants as it precipitates the Wars of the Roses.

This particular work of historical fiction is remarkable in the amount of research done on an era long past in order to make the novel seem authentic. Having published this in the 1950s, Anya Seton had to research. While most of the narrative takes place in England, Katherine and other characters are Flemish and speak French. Seton’s characters sometimes converse in an older form of French. In a note preceding the novel, Seton explained that she used the names of people she saw in registers. Also, most of the characters are real: Katherine, John of Gaunt, Katherine’s brother in-law Geoffrey Chaucer, John Wycliffe, etc. Seton provides much detail of Medieval English life. With this, the reader experiences the difficulty of survival, particularly of women such as Katherine.

My mom remembered reading this book as a teenager and this spurred her interest in both English history and literature. When I read it, I was fascinated by the book and some of the people who made cameos. The mention of John Wycliffe has spurred quite a bit of amateur research on my part. In reading the 2004 version, I was able to read a foreword by Philippa Gregory (writer, The Other Boleyn Sister). Like Gregory, I think Seton set the tone for the historical novel. Seton did her homework and her creation was a labor of love. Gregory also points out how Seton subscribed to Freudian concepts and had a 1950s mindset. Although I agree with this as well, I think Katherine is an excellent work.

I would recommend Katherine to the female historical fiction audience. It is a bit romantic. Also, this would be a great introduction to some nonfiction work on English history. The world’s interest in Katherine Swynford has led to many websites dedicated to her. Readers may catch the craze. Also, the reader must not be opposed to long novels; Katherine is over 500 pages.

Four out of Five Pearls