Sunday, February 26, 2006

Book Notes: "The Blind Assassin" by Margaret Atwood

Atwood wins the award for narrative ambition and complexity. This story is told at five different levels:

1. Iris in the present at age 82.
2. Iris' recounting of her childhood and early adult life.
3. Newspaper clippings of various events relating to Iris' life.
4. "The Blind Assassin" - a novel within the novel telling the story of two lovers.
5. "The Blind Assassin" - the lovers' complex sci-fi story of their own (making it a story within a novel within a novel).

The sheer scope of ambition and complexity make this a notable novel. Atwood successfully accomplishes the task and almost compels the reader to go through a second read to fully appreciate all of the various aspects of the novel that don't become clear until the final chapters.

Her style is warm, engaging, and flows easily. The beginning is quite choppy due to its five-layered structure and Iris' story itself is enormously ambitious as she covers not only her life in depth but that of her father, mother, grandparents, sister, and others. I was advised to take notes on the various characters that appear early on and this was good advice indeed. I pieced together a family tree as I was reading to help keep all the relationships clear. I know that doesn't sound like much fun, but Atwood assumes a high level of intellect and attention of her reader so we must rise to the task.

Atwood fully accomplishes and delivers her world-weary protagonist with gorgeous, powerful prose, infusing her with a perspective and a particular sort of wisdom that only such a character could possess. Atwood is a master of her craft and an absolutely towering humanist.

"The Blind Assassin" is a long read, but is not an arduous one. The beginning does take its time to settle into itself and establish its pace, but that initial patience will be rewarded ten or a hundred fold as the story plays out. This is a read to be absorbed and savored with the luxury of time. You don't just read "The Blind Assassin"; you spend time with Atwood, you engage in deep reflection with Iris. This isn't something you read here and there in your free time; this is a companion for a month-long stay at an Italian villa or a nightly pleasure for uninterrupted peaceful winter nights before the fireplace.

The experience is almost more real and more satisfying than if you invested your time with a new, fascinating stranger with a story to tell. Who knows if the lonely old kook in the retirement home will be worth your time? But Iris, thanks to Atwood, most surely is worth your time. And what she has to offer is incredibly well-refined and impeccably presented.

Atwood is a humanist - she glorifies the human condition with all of its flaws, unflinchingly laying bare our most pitiful and most inspired moments. Iris is savagely unapologetic for her life. At 82 she has no time for remorse or self-conscious regret. Her successes and her failures are what they are and she offers them without hesitation. Atwood doesn't expect us to pity Iris, she doesn't even necessarily expect us to like Iris, but she does wish us to see Iris. See her for what she is, exactly as she is, without glossing over the faults.

"The Blind Assassin" is an immense achievement and well worthy of its Booker Prize award.


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