The Blind Assassin Reread for #MARM, and Other Doorstoppers

It’s the fourth annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM), hosted by Canadian blogger extraordinaire Marcie of Buried in Print. In previous years, I’ve read Surfacing and The Edible Woman, The Robber Bride and Moral Disorder, and Wilderness Tips. This year Laila at Big Reading Life and I did a buddy reread of The Blind Assassin, which was historically my favourite Atwood novel. I’d picked up a free paperback the last time I was at The Book Thing of Baltimore. Below are some quick thoughts based on what I shared with Laila as I was reading.

 

The Blind Assassin (2000)

Winner of the Booker Prize and Hammett Prize; shortlisted for the Orange Prize

I must have first read this about 13 years ago. The only thing I remembered before I started my reread was that there is a science fiction book-within-the-book. I couldn’t recall anything else about the setup before I read in the blurb about the suspicious circumstances of Laura’s death in 1945. Indeed, the opening line, which deserves to be famous, is “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”

I always love novels about sisters, and Iris is a terrific narrator. Now a cantankerous elderly woman, she takes us back through her family history: her father’s button factory and his clashes with organizing workers, her mother’s early death, and her enduring relationship with their housekeeper, Reenie. Iris and Laura met a young man named Alex Thomas, a war orphan with radical views, at the factory’s Labour Day picnic, and it was clear early on that Laura was smitten, while Iris went on to marry Richard Griffen, a nouveau riche industrialist.

Interspersed with Iris’s recollections are newspaper articles that give a sense that the Chase family might be cursed, and excerpts from The Blind Assassin, Laura’s posthumously published novel. Daring for its time in terms of both explicit content and literary form (e.g., no speech marks), it has a storyline rather similar to 1984, with an upper-crust woman having trysts with a working-class man in his squalid lodgings. During their time snatched together, he also tells her a story inspired by the pulp sci-fi of the time. I was less engaged by the story-within-the-story(-within-the-story) this time around compared to Iris’s current life and flashbacks.

In the back of my mind, I had a vague notion that there was a twist coming, and in my impatience to see if I was right I ended up skimming much of the second half of the novel. My hunch was proven correct, but I was disappointed with myself that I wasn’t able to enjoy the journey more a second time around. Overall, this didn’t wow me on a reread, but then again, I am less dazzled by literary “tricks” these days. At the sentence level, however, the writing was fantastic, including descriptions of places, seasons and characters’ psychology. It’s intriguing to think about whether we can ever truly know Laura given Iris’s guardianship of her literary legacy.

If you haven’t read this before, find a time when you can give it your full attention and sink right in. It’s so wise on family secrets and the workings of memory and celebrity, and the weaving in of storylines in preparation for the big reveal is masterful.

Some favourite passages:

“What fabrications they are, mothers. Scarecrows, wax dolls for us to stick pins into, crude diagrams. We deny them an existence of their own, we make them up to suit ourselves – our own hungers, our own wishes, our own deficiencies.”

“Beginnings are sudden, but also insidious. They creep up on you sideways, they keep to the shadows, they lurk unrecognized. Then, later, they spring.”

“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it. Impossible, of course.”

My original rating (c. 2008):

My rating now:

 

What to read for #MARM next year, I wonder??

 


In general, I have been struggling mightily with doorstoppers this year. I just don’t seem to have the necessary concentration, so Novellas in November has been a boon. I’ve been battling with Ruth Ozeki’s latest novel for months, and another attempted buddy read of 460 pages has also gone by the wayside. I’ll write a bit more on this for #LoveYourLibrary on Monday, including a couple of recent DNFs. The Blind Assassin was only my third successful doorstopper of the year so far. After The Absolute Book, the other one was:

 

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

In Towles’ third novel – a big, old-fashioned dose of Americana – brothers and pals set out from Nebraska on road and rail adventures to find a fortune in 1950s New York. The book features some fantastic characters. Precocious Billy steals every scene he appears in. Duchess is a delightfully flamboyant bounder, peppering his speech with malapropisms and Shakespeare quotes. However, Emmett is a dull protagonist, and it’s disappointing that Sally, one of just two main female characters, plays such a minor role. A danger with an episodic narrative is that random events and encounters pile up but don’t do much to further the plot. At nearly 200 pages in, I realized little of consequence had happened yet. A long road, then, with some ups and downs along the way, but Towles’ fans will certainly want to sign up for the ride.

See my full review for BookBrowse; see also my related article on Studebaker cars.

With thanks to Hutchinson for the free copy for review.

 

Anything by Atwood, or any doorstoppers, on your pile recently?

27 responses

  1. I would consider The Blind Assassin my favourite Atwood too, but remember surprisingly little about it. I’m very keen to read The Lincoln Highway and have a few doorstoppers lined up for December myself!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was surprised that I remembered hardly anything, more the atmosphere than the plot.

      A reward after all the novellas, eh? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh dear. I may be the only female graduate in the country who doesn’t have Atwood at the top of her reading list. I simply find her – unreadable.

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    1. What have you tried of hers? Her work is so varied that she seems like an author by whom everyone could find SOMEthing to like! I’ve read 25 of her books, everything from poetry to graphic novels. I don’t tend to like the ones everyone raves about, though (e.g. The Handmaid’s Tale).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Let’s see. Blind Assassin, Handmaid’s Tale, The Heart Goes Last, and possibly others too. A selection sits on my bookcase and looks down disapprovingly at me. I just sigh, and ignore …

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      2. Okay, so you have given her a fair shake in a few different genres. There are just certain authors we can’t get on with, try as we might. Perhaps it’s time to part with her books!

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  3. I loved the Blind Assassin so much when it came out that I’m almost scared to revisit it. But you persuade me that I should! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It didn’t quite live up to my memory, but it was still well worth reading. My reaction may have something to do with my attention span at the moment. (And I wish I hadn’t remembered the twist — it’s rare for me to retain such plot details.)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have fond memories of The Blind Assassin although it doesn’t seem to be much acclaimed by some. Recently, I worked my way through Elizabeth Mccracken’s chunky Bowlaway and ended up enjoying it after an uncertain start.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s one of the better Booker winners, from my experience.

      Alas, I abandoned Bowlaway (too quirky for me), though I’d enjoyed other work by McCracken before. Do you know her short stories? The volume Thunderstruck was excellent.

      Like

      1. No, I’ve not read that. Thanks for the tip.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Reading your review makes me realize how little I remember of The Blind Assassin. I always come away from MARM with plans to read next year what everyone else is reading this year. Ha!

    I still have yet to read anything by Amor Towles. Do you have a favourite so far?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have no idea what to read next year. Probably an early novel or some more short stories. I’ll be relying on the library.

      I’ve read this and A Gentleman in Moscow. Both are widely loved. While I enjoyed them overall, I found them both overlong and meandering.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I have long wanted to re-read The Blind Assassin as I was underwhelmed when I first read it. I’m sure I would appreciate it more now. I loved the Towles – I think it needed Emmett to be the straight man, but you’re right, Sally could have been more to the front.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d be interested to know if you liked it more on a reread.

      I think Towles needs a harsher editor 😉

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  7. I’ve been enjoying all the Novellas after doing “Roots” in September, I have to say! Ha!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been getting on much better with novellas than with doorstoppers!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. We chose the same quotation about mothers! 🙂 Atwood is just such a marvelous writer. Even when her plots meander I just admire her writing on a sentence level so much. I think my next re-read of hers will be The Robber Bride. It’s been AGES since I read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think there are still a few major novels that I haven’t gotten to yet. Bodily Harm is one I keep meaning to borrow.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. […] mentioned in a post last week that I’ve had a hard time finding the concentration for doorstoppers lately, which is ironic […]

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  10. Ooo, I am a Towles fan, but this new one doesn’t sound like it could hold a candle to A GENTLEMAN…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I liked Gentleman that little bit more. Just one more of his to read — I might try to start Rules of Civility on New Year’s Eve since that’s when the book opens.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I liked Rules, but not like I really liked Gentleman.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. When you and Laila mentioned rereading this one, I was really tempted. It’s interesting that you found it an exception to your struggling-with-doorstoppers-in-2021 rule too! As I mentioned to Laila, I have pictures of the bridge, but I regularly forget that they are living in Mr. BIPs photo storage, so I can never put hands on them as quickly as I think I’ll be able to…when I am next rooting around in there, I’ll share with both of you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s awesome! I’d love to see the photos. Well, I did end up skimming loads of this one, so it kind of fell into the general doorstoppers dilemma. Maybe 2022 will be my year for long books!

      Like

      1. I asked Laila this, too, but did you know that there are clues in the sci-fi narrative that reveal other dimensions of the broader story in the other timeline? I’ve heard many readers say they skimmed or skipped all those sections (much like skimming the poems in Possession *ahem* *innocent look*) and I can see where that would be tempting, but it’s not as separate from the story proper as it seems. Anyway, I do think some years are built for long books and others are not. You’ve read plenty of awesome stuff this year without those doorstoppers.

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      2. I’m sure I would have noticed that on my first read (at which time the pastiche poems in Possession would have thrilled me too!).

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