Tuesday, August 23, 2011

#43 - "The Blind Assassin" by Margaret Atwood

I suppose in a way, I'm now more Canadian than I was last week.  Why, you ask?  Because I've finished my first Margaret Atwood book, The Blind Assassin.  No doubt one of the most popular and most highly respected authors to come out of Canada, I think of it as some sort of rite of passage to have finally read one of her books.
The Blind Assassin: A NovelI'm happy to report, it was one I truly enjoyed.  I say I'm happy I enjoyed it because of the two types of reactions I seem to encounter when I mention to fellow Canadians that I'm reading an Atwood book.  For the most part people say, 'oh, I really like her books' or something to that effect.  But others look like they just bit into a lemon as they same something like 'She's okay, but I'm not crazy about her..."  It's almost as if they don't want to say they don't like her because it might be considered unpatriotic.  Being the honest guy I am, I'd probably just say I didn't like her, and could then be accused of being a maple leaf-hating traitor.  But, I liked it, so I guess I'm safe from those accusations.

The Blind Assassin starts out with a series of newspaper clippings outlining a young woman's death in a car accident in 1945, her brother-in-law's death of a stroke in 1947, and her niece's death in 1975.  From there, the story begins with the birth of Iris Chase Griffen, the dead woman's sister, the brother-in-law's husband, and the niece's mother.  She narrates the story of her childhood in a wealthy family, her marriage, and in the end, her tragedy.  And tragedy is really what the story is, as she explains the details and events which lead to said deaths.

Iris is the only person left who knows the truth behind the deaths, and looks to set the story straight for her estranged granddaughter.  The book jumps from present to past frequently, as Iris talks of her life now, and the changes that she has experienced, then revisits her past to make sense of those changes.  The book also uses passages of a novel-within-a-novel entitled The Blind Assassin, which her sister became posthumously famous for writing, and tells the tale of a wealthy woman and her elicit affair with a local vagabond.

At times I find books that use time shifts like this to be confusing, as I did in Faulkner's Light in August, but Atwood's use of them is very accessible.  Instead of losing the reader, The Blind Assassin is able to hold their attention, and the technique is very adept at piecing the plot together.  I found it fun in a way to guess how the combination of stories from the past and the allusions in the novel-within-a-novel would turn out in the main story.

I also really enjoyed Atwood's writing style and her use of words.  She uses a lot of similies and metaphors, so many of which I found create really vivid descriptions.  Plus, she writes with a wit I wasn't expecting.  There were so many great lines in this book, many of which left me smiling, if not giggling.  My list-reading counterpart in Nashville, Robert Bruce, has assembled many of these lines in a recent post on his site, 101 Books.

This was truly an enjoyable read and I'll be sure to revisit Atwood in the future.  After I read the next 57 books from The List, that is.

Click here to read TIME magazine's review from September 11, 2000.

You can hear me talk about The Blind Assassin on the Calgary Eyeopener right here.

Notes: This is the only truly Canadian book on The List. Neuromancer was written by William Gibson who holds dual citizenship but was born and educated in the United States, and Saul Bellow was born in Montreal but moved to Chicago when he was nine years old.

As a funny aside, I noticed in Time's explanation for why this book made The List, they refer to the book's setting as 'a chilly Canadian town.' I never got the feeling it was really cold in the book, save a couple of mentions of snow or ice in the dead of winter, but nothing to make me think they lived in a particularly cold place, and certainly nothing worth noting. Perhaps it is assumed all Canadian towns are really cold. But then wouldn't that be redundant to mention it, like saying a book was set in a warm Hawaiian town?

Next up is still to be decided, but I'm leaning toward Malcolm Lowry's 1947 novel, Under the Volcano.


  1. That's really interesting, when I read the book I didn't picture it as super chilly either.

    I'm a new follower from about a week ago after hearing you on CBC. I really enjoy that you're blogging about your journey!

  2. Yah, I think it's just a bit of an American bias toward the 'Great White North'!

    Thanks for reading!