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.
With thanks to Hutchinson for the free copy for review.
Anything by Atwood, or any doorstoppers, on your pile recently?
It’s my fourth time participating in one of Simon and Karen’s reading weeks (after last year’s 1920 Club and 1956 Club and April’s 1936 Club). I start with a novel I actually read for my book club’s short-lived feminist classics subgroup way back in March but didn’t manage to review before now, and then have another I picked up especially for this challenge. Both were from the university library.
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
An unusual and fascinating novel with hints of science fiction, but still grounded in the real world (in a way that would attract fans of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred and Parable duology), this contrasts utopian and dystopian scenes experienced by a Latina woman who’s been confined to a mental hospital. At 37, Connie Ramos has had a tough life marked by deprivation and domestic violence; “it was a crime to be born poor as it was a crime to be born brown.” She finds herself in conversation with Luciente, a plant geneticist who claims to be visiting from the future – coastal Massachusetts in 2137 – and has heard rumors of this prior Age of Greed and Waste. Luciente senses that Connie is a “catcher,” receptive to the wavelength of other times and places.
When drawn into Luciente’s future, Connie thinks of it more as a peasant past because of the animal husbandry and agriculture, but comes to appreciate how technology and gender equality contribute to a peaceful society and environmentally restored landscape. I was intrigued by the dynamic Piercy imagines: everyone is of indeterminate gender (the universal pronouns are “person” and “per” – how about it? Both less confusing and more aesthetically pleasing than they/them!); embryos are cultured in machines and the resulting children raised communally with three honorary named “mother” figures. People choose their own names and change them in response to rites of passage. There’s no government or police. Free love reigns. “Our notions of evil center around power and greed” rather than sex, Connie is told.
With Connie and her fellow inmates facing mind-altering surgery in the ‘real’ world, Luciente’s community becomes a blessed escape. But on one of her time travels, she ends up in a dystopian future New York City instead. From 126 floors up, all that’s visible through the smoggy air is other towers. Everyone is genetically modified and everything is owned by corporations. Which scenario represents the authentic evolution of human society?
The way Piercy intersperses these visions with life at the mental hospital, and closes with excerpts from Connie’s patient notes, forces you to question whether they might all be hallucinations. We didn’t come to any firm conclusion during our Zoom discussion. The others found Connie’s life unremittingly bleak, but I love me a good mental hospital narrative. While I wearied a bit of the anthropological detail as the novel went on, I thought it an intense cultural commentary from a writer ahead of her time on gender roles and the environment (small-scale food production, foraging, renewable energy and reusing/recycling are givens in her utopia, and she questions the nonsensical reliance on cars. Why didn’t we listen to the prophets of the 1970s when we maybe had a chance to turn things around?!).
The Takeover by Muriel Spark
Had I read this in manuscript with no author name attached, I might have declared it to have been written by Iris Murdoch for the clutch of amoral characters, the love triangles, the peculiar religious society, the slight meanness of the attitude, and the detachment of the prose. Maggie Radcliffe is a rich American who owns three houses in the vicinity of Rome, one of which she rents out to Hubert Mallindaine, an effete homosexual who alleges that he is descended from the goddess Diana and founds a cult in her honour. He holds to this belief as fiercely as he defends his right to remain at Nemi even when Maggie decides she wants him out and employs lawyers to start eviction proceedings. There are odd priests, adulterous family members, scheming secretaries, and art and jewellery thieves, too. I wouldn’t say I’m a fan, but I liked this, my fourth novel by Spark, better than the rest. Italian bureaucracy makes for an amusing backdrop to what is almost a financial farce with an ensemble cast.
Another 1976 release I’ve reviewed this year: The Easter Parade by Richard Yates.
I’m not doing as well with my rereading goal this year as I did in 2020. So far I’ve gotten to The Republic of Love by Carol Shields and the two below (with another DNF). Considering that I completed 16 rereads last year, I’m looking seriously behind. I still have a bulging shelf of books I’d like to reread, but they never seem to make it onto my current reading stack…
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
I probably picked this up at age seven or so as a natural follow-on from the Chronicles of Narnia – both are well-regarded children’s sci fi/fantasy from an author with a Christian worldview. In my memory I didn’t connect with L’Engle’s work particularly well, finding it vague and cerebral, if creative, compared to Lewis’s. I don’t think I ever went on to the multiple sequels. As an adult I’ve enjoyed L’Engle’s autobiographical and spiritual writing, especially the Crosswicks Journals, so I thought I’d give her best-known book another try.
On a proverbially dark and stormy night, Meg Murry and her precocious little brother Charles Wallace come down to the kitchen to join their mother for a snack. In blows Mrs. Whatsit with the promise of a way of rescuing their missing scientist father through a “tesseract,” or wrinkle in time. Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, rounding out a trio of Macbeth-like witches, accompany the children and their friend Calvin on a perilous journey to face up to cosmic darkness in the form of a disembodied brain called IT that keeps their father hostage and tries to entrance Charles Wallace as well.
Interplanetary stories have never held a lot of interest for me. (As a child, I was always more drawn to talking-animal stuff.) Again I found the travels and settings hazy. It’s admirable of L’Engle to introduce kids to basic quantum physics, and famous quotations via Mrs. Who, but this all comes across as consciously intellectual rather than organic and compelling. Even the home and school talk feels dated. I most appreciated the thought of a normal – or even not very bright – child like Meg saving the day through bravery and love. This wasn’t for me, but I hope that for some kids, still, it will be pure magic.
“The only way to cope with something deadly serious is to try to treat it a little lightly.”
“we can’t take any credit for our talents. It’s how we use them that counts.”
Original rating (as remembered from childhood):
My rating now:
Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds (2007)
This must be one of the first graphic novels I ever read. Hearing that it was an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, one of my favorite novels, was enough to attract me. During the years that I worked at King’s College London, I took full advantage of Lambeth Library’s extensive graphic novel collection and would pick up big piles of all sorts of books on my lunch breaks – I got a gentle ribbing from library staff nearly every time I showed up. Anyway, this is all backstory to me finding a severely underpriced secondhand copy (99p! the dear old ladies pricing things couldn’t have known what they had) in the Hay-on-Wye Oxfam shop in April 2017. It took me until earlier this year to reread it, though.
Simmonds recreates the central situation of FFTMC – an alluring young woman returns to her ancestral village and enraptures three very different men – but doesn’t stick slavishly to its plot. Her greatest innovation is in the narration. Set in and around a writers’ retreat, the novel is told in turns by Dr. Glen Larson, a (chubby, Bryson-esque) visiting American academic trying to get to grips with his novel; Beth Hardiman, who runs the retreat center and does all the admin for her philandering crime writer husband, Nicholas; and Casey Shaw, a lower-class teenager who, with her bold pal Jody, observes all the goings-on among the posh folk from the local bus shelter and later gets unexpectedly drawn in to their lives.
Tamara is a hotshot London journalist and, after a nose job, is irresistible to men. Andy Cobb, the Hardimans’ groundsman, runs a small organic food business and is a clear stand-in for Hardy’s Farmer Oak. He’s known Tamara nearly all their lives, and isn’t fussed about her new appearance and glitzy reputation. But she certainly turns Nicholas’s head, and also draws the attention of Ben, former drummer for a washed-up band. Tamara and Ben are a power couple in this sleepy village, and stir up jealousy. Ben is closest to Sergeant Troy, but he and Nicholas (who’s most like Boldwood) aren’t one-to-one equivalents. Casey and Jody fill the role of the servants and rustics, with chavs serving as the early 21st-century peasantry.
So Simmonds takes what she wants from Hardy, but adapts it as it suits her. There are a lot of words on the page compared to some graphic novels, so this would be a good halfway house for someone who’s new to comics for adults and still wants a good story to get the teeth into. At nearly 150 pages, there’s plenty of time for Simmonds to spin an involved, dramatic tale and give insight into her characters and their interactions. One ends up feeling, perhaps inevitably, more sympathy for the narrators than for the other characters, but all are well drawn. There’s a surprise ending, too. Back in 2010 I was probably more interested in getting a straight Hardy remake, so might have been disappointed when Simmonds strayed from the source material, but now I thoroughly enjoyed this for its own sake.
Original rating (2010?):
My rating now:
And a DNF:
I’ve long considered A.S. Byatt a favorite author, and early last year my reread of one of her story collections was successful. But trying again with The Biographer’s Tale (2000) – which I remember reading in an airport as I traveled to or from Leeds, where I was doing a Master’s degree, to see my family for Christmas in 2005/6 – was a lost cause. I remembered an intricate, clever, witty take on the biographer’s art, but couldn’t have recited any details for you. I managed about the first 100 pages this time. Phineas G. sets out to write a biography of famous biographer Scholes Destry-Scholes, whose subjects included Francis Galton, Henrik Ibsen, and Carl Linnaeus. The novel quotes extensively from Destry-Scholes’s writing on these three, and his general notes on writing biography. I got lost somewhere in the documents. I think in my early twenties I was more impressed by virtuoso faux-scholarly writing like you often get in Byatt or Julian Barnes. Alas, it engages me less now.
Done any rereading lately?
The 2020 Booker Prize will be announced on Thursday the 19th. (Delayed from the 17th, the date on my commemorative bookmark, so as not to be overshadowed by the release of the first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoirs.) After I reviewed Burnt Sugar and correctly predicted half of the shortlist in this post, I’ve managed to finish another two of the novels on the shortlist, along with two more from the longlist. As sometimes happens with prize lists – thinking also of the Women’s Prize race in 2019 – this year’s shortlist fell into rough pairs: two stark mother–daughter narratives, two novels set in Africa, and two gay coming-of-age stories.
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
In a striking opening to a patchy novel, Bea goes off to the woods to give birth alone to a stillborn daughter. It’s such a different experience to when she birthed Agnes in a hospital eight years ago. Now, with coyotes and buzzards already circling, there’s no time for sentimentality; she turns her back on the baby and returns to the group. Bea is part of a wilderness living experiment that started out with 20 volunteers, but illness and accidents have since reduced their number.
Back in the toxic, overcrowded City, Bea was an interior decorator and her partner a professor of anthropology. Bea left to give Agnes a better chance at life; like so many other children, she had become ill from her polluted surroundings. Now she is a bright, precocious leader in the making, fully participating in the community’s daily chores. Settlement tempts them, but the Rangers enforce nomadism. Newcomers soon swell their numbers, and there are rumors of other groups, too. Is it even a wilderness anymore if so many people live in it?
The cycles of seasons and treks between outposts make it difficult to get a handle on time’s passing. It’s a jolt to realize Agnes is now of childbearing age. Only when motherhood is a possibility can she fully understand her own mother’s decisions, even if she determines to not repeat the history of abandonment. The blurb promised a complex mother–daughter relationship, but this element of the story felt buried under the rigor of day-to-day survival.
It is as if Cook’s primary interest was in how humans would react to being returned to primitive hunter–gatherer conditions – she did a lot of research into Native American practices, for instance, and she explores the dynamics of sex and power and how legends arise. As a child I was fascinated by Native cultures and back-to-the-land stories, so I enjoyed the details of packing lists, habits, and early rituals that form around a porcelain teacup.
But for me some nuts and bolts of storytelling were lacking here: a propulsive plot, a solid backstory, secondary characters that are worthwhile in their own right and not just stereotypes and generic roles. The appealing description induced me to overcome my usual wariness about dystopian novels, but a plodding pace meant it took me months to read. A lovely short epilogue narrated by Agnes made me wonder how much less tedious this chronicle might have been if told in the first person by Bea and Agnes in turn. I’ll try Cook’s story collection, Man V. Nature, to see if her gifts are more evident in short form.
My thanks to Oneworld for the free copy for review.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Over the course of one late summer weekend, Wallace questions everything about the life he has built. As a gay African American, he has always been an outsider at the Midwestern university where he’s a graduate student in biochemistry. Though they vary in background and include several homosexuals, some partnered and some unattached, most of his friends are white, and he’s been so busy that he’s largely missed out on evening socializing by the lake – and skipped his father’s funeral (though there are other reasons for that as well).
Tacit prejudice comes out into the open in ugly ways in these few days. When he finds his nematode experiments sabotaged, a female colleague at his lab accuses him of misogyny, brandishing his identity as a weapon against him: “you think that you get to walk around because you’re gay and black and act like you can do no wrong.” Then, in a deliciously awkward dinner party scene, an acquaintance brings up Wallace’s underprivileged Alabama upbringing as if it explains why he’s struggling to cope in his academic career.
Meanwhile, Wallace has hooked up with a male – and erstwhile straight – friend, and though there is unwonted tenderness in this relationship, there is also a hint of menace. The linking of sexuality and violence echoes the memories of abuse from Wallace’s childhood, which tumble out in the first-person stream of consciousness of Chapter 5. Other male friends, too, are getting together or breaking apart over mismatched expectations. Kindness is possible, but built-in injustice and cruelty, whether vengeful or motiveless, too often take hold.
There are moments when Wallace seems too passive or self-pitying, but the omniscient narration emphasizes that all of the characters have hidden depths and that emotions ebb and flow. What looks like despair on Saturday night might feel like no big deal come Monday morning. I so admired how this novel was constructed: the condensed timeframe, the first and last chapters in the past tense (versus the rest in the present tense), the contrast between the cerebral and the bodily, and the thematic and linguistic nods to Virginia Woolf. A very fine debut indeed.
I also read two more of the longlisted novels from the library:
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Such a fun book! I’d read the first chapter earlier in the year and set it aside, thinking it was too hip for me. I’m glad I decided to try again – it was a great read, so assured and contemporary. Once I got past a slightly contrived first chapter, I found it completely addictive. The laser-precision plotting and characterization reminded me of Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith at their peak, but the sassy voice is all Reid’s own. There are no clear villains here; Alix Chamberlain could easily have filled that role, but I felt for her and for Kelley as much as I did for Emira. The fact that I didn’t think anyone was completely wrong shows how much nuance Reid worked in. The question of privilege is as much about money as it is about race, and these are inextricably intertwined.
Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward
An intriguing set of linked short stories that combine philosophy and science fiction. Rachel and Eliza are preparing to have a baby together when an ant crawls into Rachel’s eye and she falls ill. Eliza wants to believe her partner but, as a scientist, can’t affirm something that doesn’t make sense (“We don’t need to resort to the mystical to describe physical processes,” she says). Other chapters travel to Turkey, Brazil and Texas – and even into space. It takes 60+ pages to figure out, but you can trust all the threads will converge around Rachel and her son, Arthur, who becomes an astronaut. I was particularly taken by a chapter narrated by the ant (yes, really) as it explores Rachel’s brain. Each section is headed by a potted explanation of a thought experiment from philosophy. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the alternative future of the two final chapters. Still, I was impressed with the book’s risk-taking and verve. It’s well worth making a rare dip into sci-fi for this one.
Back in September I still thought Hilary Mantel would win the whole thing, but since her surprise omission from the shortlist I’ve assumed the prize will go to Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. This was a DNF for me, but I’ll try it again next year in case it was just a matter of bad timing (like the Reid and The Go-Between – two books I attempted a second time this year and ended up loving). Given that it was my favorite of the ones I read, I would be delighted to see Real Life win, but I think it unlikely. My back-up prediction is The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, which I would consider reserving from the library if it wins.