Hazel McHaffie

The Blind Assassin

Another ten hours on trains, plus extra time on stations waiting for connections … another opportunity to read uninterrupted … what to take …?

Ahhah! One of those books that seems to permanently slip down the to-be-read pile. A (Mann) Booker Prize winner.

Sigh. Yep, I do try, but I often struggle with these big literary prize winners. Got to be in the mood (determined), with peace and quiet to really concentrate (when would that be, then?), and with a good reason to persist (a talk, an article, a bookclub session). So I deliberately created an incentive this time: my weekly blog.

I selected The Blind Assassin by Canadian author, Margaret Atwood, which won back in 2000. I picked it up in a wee shop near the hospital in Devon where my mother was earlier this year, but before I could get stuck into it, crises developed, and I spent all my time trying to sort out the muddle that is official provision for care of the vulnerable elderly.

Appropriate then that I should read it while travelling to visit her this week. (She doesn’t know me now but she seems reassured by a presence and touch, so I also read a bit while sitting holding her hand as she slept.) Cross Country trains were on my side, conveniently cranking up the air conditioning so that it was far too cold to doze off.

The Blind Assassin is off-puttingly long – 637 pages – and the detailed descriptions and slow pace would deter many a potential reader. But chapter 1 begins with: ‘Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge’ … Nothing much was left of her but charred smithereens.’ So far so good.

The narrator is 83 year old Iris Chase, who tells of her own life in retrospect, taking in major historical events of the 20th century – WW1 and WW2, the Depression, the Spanish Civil War. Interlaced with her story is a novel called The Blind Assassin, published posthumously, which makes her sister, Laura, a household name as a novelist. In between the spaces there’s an ongoing account of a 1930s clandestine affair between a married society woman and a political agitator on the run from the authorities, and a sci-fi story which the man recounts to his lover over the course of their infrequent meetings. And as if that’s not enough, the whole is punctuated by newspaper extracts outlining significant events in the lives of the Chase family. Phew! Thoroughly confused? Well, just think of the infrastructure Atwood must have needed to construct in order to keep that little lot sorted in her head and accurate on the page.

Some aspects irritated me, some were simply tedious (lots of reviews talk about the need to persist – hmm), but every now and then there’s a gem of a phrase that makes me wish for that kind of skill with language.

Picturing the dress her sister would have been wearing when she drove to her death: ‘a shirtwaist with a small rounded collar, in a sober colour – navy blue or steel grey or hospital-corridor green. Penitential colours …’

Getting clothes on helped. I’m not at my best without scaffolding.’

He gave his version of a smile – a thin crack in his face, like mud drying …’

Her hat was the same shade – a round swirl of green fabric, balanced on her head like a poisonous cake.’

The elevator was the kind that had a crisscross grille of metal bars within the cage itself; stepping into it was like going briefly to jail.’

Those moments made persistence worthwhile in my book. (Sorry, inappropriate use of idiom.) But I have to confess, overall I’m glad to consign this to the tomes that I’ve read and won’t need again. I think I’ve earned a thoroughly enjoyable tale next. Now let me see …

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