The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

2000 Margaret Atwood The Blind AssasinFirst thought was, I think this might have been a really good 350 page novel. Unfortunately it’s almost twice the size and as cluttered with random detail as an attic. In this sense it’s a typical Booker Prize winner (for me the only time the Booker judges have got even close to being on the money in the past decade is Hilary Mantel).

Ostensibly The Blind Assassins tells the story of two sisters and their relationships with two men at either ends of the political spectrum – Iris marries the industrialist and fascist sympathiser Richard Griffen, her sister Laura is infatuated with a communist agitator, Alex Thomas. This all takes place in the years before WW2. The two girls grow up in an idyllic house called Avilion (Avalon was the island King Arthur was taken after being wounded and Atwood presents a way of life at Avilion as something equally wounded and on the verge of expiring). The girls’ childhood was probably my favourite part of this novel which has many tiers and many stories within stories (too many). For me Atwood’s at her best when she isn’t trying to be too clever, when she drops her penchant for melodrama and rather self-defeating literary juggling acts.
There’s also a novel within this novel. Alex Thomas to survive writes pulp fiction for magazines and invents Planet Zycron. For the most part Planet Zycron is pure silliness. Kind of fun as a narrative Alex makes up while in bed with his lover but wholly implausible as a novel that has received critical acclaim and is still in print fifty years later.

Also, I’m afraid I’m not really a great fan of Atwood’s prose. Sometimes it reminds me of the literary equivalent of elderly people wearing teenage clothes. Like this this observation which starts off great but ends up like chewing gum. “Women have curious ways of hurting someone else. They hurt themselves instead; or else they do it so the guy doesn’t even know he’s been hurt until much later. Then he finds out. Then his dick falls off.” She’s also got an annoying habit of using two consecutive metaphors for the same observation. Or else using a metaphor that is so wacky that it creates more confusion than clarity – as when bread is described as ”white and soft and flavorless as an angel’s buttock.”
The central male character, Richard Griffin, is a feminist’s wet dream. He’s so conclusively vile that it becomes like a fancy dress costume. Impossible to take serious. Ditto, his sister Winnifred. A pair of 19th century monsters in a 20th century novel. Pantomime versions of the fabulously wicked Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle in Portrait of a Lady. Patriarchal male bullying has been done with so much more artistry and subtlety (and plausibility) – Casaubon with Dorothea in Middlemarch for example or the King Lear father in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres which I’m presently reading. There’s a strong element of feminist crowd pleasing in this utterly one dimensional portrait of patriarchal tyranny. Ironically it also serves to make you like Iris, his wife, less.

The novel revolves on a central twist, you could almost say it’s the novel’s raison d’etre, and this is the clever and engaging part of this novel – the two sisters become the same woman with two contrasting fates: Iris conforms and survives at a ghastly price, Laura refuses to compromise and dies. The problem is all the clutter heaped around this fascinating central theme.

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