Advent with Atwood, Modern Masters

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood – 6/10

“Why stir everything up again after that many years, with all concerned tucked, like tired children, so neatly into their graves?”


Iris Chase, heiress to the Chase family button-making business and married off to rival Richard Griffin, takes the opportunity towards the end of her life to revisit her story. Along the way we are treated to excerpts from the book penned by her prematurely deceased and decidedly odd sister Laura, newspaper clippings telling of the untimely demise of multiple family members, and Iris’ life as an elderly lady back in the town where she grew up.

If you’re interested in my thoughts as I went along, here are links to read-along parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

The strands of the book varied greatly for me; I loved Iris’ story as an old lady, reminding me of Moon Tiger, one of my favourite book, as well as having strains of The Help. Gentle, smooth, comfort reading. The newspaper articles were intriguing, moved the plot along smartly and added a sense of location and community and times. Iris’ memories of childhood were the best part for me; Very Dead End Gene Pool with overtones of Blackberry Winter, but more positive. She tells this section very slowly, which strings out the reading pleasure and increases the bitter anticipation of the tragedy we already know will happen. In terms of the pulp novel/sci-fi subplot: I never connected with the people or really understood the relationship – there was a neat twist at the end but I could have lived without it; as for the dreadful fantasty writing…

It became more and more readable as it went along; possibly because there is less and less of the sci-fi story and more of the slow-motion train wreck of Iris Chase’s life. Interspersing it with her days as a pensioner is sort of reassuring because we know that she’s going to get through all the mildly unpleasant parts of her life intact, and we already know that Laura will drive off the bridge so now we’re sort of just waiting for it to happen.

Atwood writes fluently and elegantly but without much showiness; I only noted a few quotes:

“On the main street of Port Ticonderoga there were five churches and four banks, all made of stone, all chunky. Sometimes you had to read the names on them to tell the difference, although the banks lacked steeples.”

“Alone and therefore neglected, neglected and therefore unsuccessful. As if I’d been stood up, jilted; as if I had a broken heart. A group of English people in cream-coloured linen stared at me. It wasn’t a hostile stare; it was bland, remote, faintly curious. No one can stare like the English. I felt rumpled and grubby, and of minor interest.”

and my favourite, which tops this review.

It’s a sad novel; an inevitability of tragedy hangs over the protagonist. I did enjoy the description of life in between-war Canada, the life Iris had before and after marrying new money (it reminds me of something I’ve read recently, a woman who marries for money rather than love… ah – Wallis Simpson).

It turns very interesting from a semi-unreliable narrator point of view;  Iris is quite happily telling us all her marital woes while she fails to notice anything about Laura at all, and fails to protect her from the Richard and Winifred double act. Old Iris’ morbid (she even calls it lugubrious) discussion of her own death interspersed with her observations on her very unhappy marriage adds even more darkness to the domesticity. The marriage is quite oddly unhappy, actually – the dynamic of the traditional over-bearing mother-in-law who won’t let go of her son is occupied by Winifred (“Freddie” – really?) the older sister, which struck me as very strange. Why would Richard choose a wife so far his junior if he enjoys the company of his older sister as a peer? Or is it just poor coincidence that the age gap was so large and really it’s just the Chase business that Richard wanted?

I was so pleased when the sci-fi stopped. I know it was intentionally awful, but still.

The twist in the The Blind Assassin affair reduced Laura as a character for me; she became a little girl once more. The slightly autistic, reserved but also impetuous trouble-maker of the family; no longer a sophisticated woman of intrigue. Iris grew in my eyes to become much stronger, with backbone (which is an odd reaction for me. I abhor infidelity in novels).

The ending felt very rushed. Suddenly Laura was dead, and Richard was dead, and Iris is clearly on the way out herself; either Atwood ran out of time (highly unlikely) or simply decided she was done with the part of the story she wanted to tell.

Thoughts? Thoughts on the book as a whole? on the read-along experience if you joined in? (as a straight-through sort of reader, read-alongs are a very different animal for me).

Additional information:

Modern Masters, PEN/Faulkner Prize, Prizes

Snow Falling On Cedars – David Guterson – 9/10

I write this review confined to the sofa by
one of the worst toe-stubbings I have suffered… fortunately Mr. RFBT rescued
the bolognese that was bubbling away on the stove.

This PEN/Faulkner
winner from 1995
impressed me enormously. I wasn’t surprised to discover
that the author lives on an island in the location in which the book is set
(the island on which the book is set is not necessarily real, I don’t know, but
it is very clearly based on a real place) because he captures the essence of
island living, of isolated communities with their epic feuds and total lack of
anonymity. I was fascinated by the place itself – a hybrid of Nordic and
Japanese communities, shrouded in fog and snow. Given the author’s surname I
would guess that this social mix is also real.

Snow Falling on Cedars reminded me very
much of Atonement – a forbidden love, disturbed by disaster, a third party
wishing things had been different, some time spent graphically at war. The main
plot line is the court case (in 1954) in which Kabuo Miyamoto is accused of
killing Carl Heine over seven acres of land in a deal gone bad over a number of
generations. The undercurrent is the relationship (or rather, lack thereof)
between the local reporter and the accused’ s wife Hatsue, from childhood
through to the court case – and the bad feeling left in every relationship by
the outbreak of war and the ensuing internment of Japanese Americans.

I would have given this 10/10 but for two
factors: I thought the war section was badly written – unnecessarily graphic,
in fact just unnecessary; and that Ishmael (the reporter) is a surprisingly
apathetic narrator.

I’m going to make a quick plug for Bookmooch at this point – I mooched
this book from Japan and it arrived in excellent condition. I love being a
member of Bookmooch – I save money on buying books, I know that my outgoing
books are going to loving homes, and every now and again I receive a book with
a postcard, photograph or something else personal in it. I never used to buy or
read second hand books but I love the idea that others have sat enthralled by
the very same pages. Bookmooch is not-for-profit and run (entirely?) on
goodwill, so even though I’m pretty sure I’m typing into a void of nothingness
in terms of readership, I hope that people will join up!