Friday, July 27, 2012

Review: The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had to sleep on this one before I could rate it. My initial feeling when I finished listening to it on audio was of overwhelming sadness, and I was tempted to rate it more harshly for upsetting me. But it's a well-crafted tale that can affect one emotionally, so I thought it deserved some stepping back to consider. In the end, I concluded that this isn't my favorite Margaret Atwood book, but it is well-crafted.

The Blind Assassin is a story within a story within a story. The inner layer is a science fiction tale about an alien society in its early barbaric days. A young woman whose tongue was cut out and a young man blinded from his days weaving carpets fall in love, and escape their doomed city. The next layer out is two nameless lovers. The man in the pairing is telling the woman the story of the blind assassin. He's a writer who usually churns out cheesy pulp science fiction, but he's also in hiding for being falsely accused of murder. Then the outermost layer is Iris Chase Griffen, a woman in her 80s who's writing her early life story, most of which falls between WWI and WWII. She moves between a present day she hardly recognizes and a past full of pain. She writes about her sister, Laura, who went off a bridge in Iris's car in 1945.

The story is told out of chronological order, interspersed with news articles pertaining to the narrative, though their relation isn't immediately obvious in all cases. The story especially seems to jump around toward the end, until the last of the story is told and it's all tied together.

I was worried the novel would leave me guessing until the very end about some of the hints it kept dropping, but Iris does spell out her secrets she's so reluctant to disclose. There is one question left at the very end, but answering it would've cheapened the narrative. I like the answer I came up with.

The story is frustrating to listen to in places. Iris has so little power, so little freedom, in her marriage to Richard Griffen. He and his sister, Winifred Griffen Prior, are determined to keep Iris helpless and in the dark. Reading (or listening to it on audio) is an exercise in feeling that loneliness, boredom, restlessness. I felt chills when the narrator read me what Iris did to rebel. Good for her!

This is also a story about sisters. Laura and Iris grow up and mature into adult women, but their relationship dynamic remains a constant. Iris remains exasperated with her sister's enigmatic nature, her own responsibility to look after her, while Laura stays a dreamer who sees no differentiation between herself and her big sister. What's Iris's is Laura's, in Laura's eyes, and she assumes Iris feels the same way. The relationship between the sisters was probably the strongest aspect of the book.

There are also literary elements I don't like. Rich people make themselves miserable, cheat on one another, constantly drink alcohol to excess, and fail to talk about important things. Those felt more logical and necessary in this book than in other literary books with the same elements, but they still felt like clich├ęs.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Margot Dionne. She has a slight accent I couldn't place, but that she plays up for certain characters to set their dialogue apart in the narrative. She speaks very crisply and distinctly, with no change in volume or modulation. I didn't have to keep adjusting my volume to hear murmurs or whispers, only to turn it back down when people shouted. I listened to a fair chunk of the audio book while I was walking, and it certainly made the time pass.

Margaret Atwood has a grounding in poetry, though, so she chooses her words carefully, selecting a lyrical presentation whenever possible. Even the less pleasant sections of the narrative are pretty to listen to.

If, like me, you've had this book recommended from dozens of sources, I highly recommend giving the audio edition a listen. The lyricism of the words really comes to life when spoken aloud.

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