Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

This is the second book I have read in recent times with the structure of an elderly lady telling her story before she dies. The other was on Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry. That book was a disappointment for me, compared to my passion for the other Barry books I have read over the years.  The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood strikes me as an exceptional book, I guess they don't hand out the Booker Prize for nothing (winner 2000).

As mentioned, The Blind Assassin is told by an elderly lady,Iris, as she is dying of a failing heart, perhaps in more than one sense. It is the story of two sisters, and Iris opens her story with the suicide of her younger sister Laura just after the end of WWII. Events leading up to Laura's suicide provide the thrust for the rest of the novel.

For me, part of my enjoyment of the story is in the complex narrative structure. When executed poorly, this passing from the present to the past in historical fiction, is often tedious and confusing. Margaret Atwood however, knows what she is doing. The novel is over 600 pages long and completely compelling from beginning to end. I am sure it could have all gone horribly wrong, as there are several narrative streams to the story, some told in the first person from Iris's point of view and the pivotal romantic stream cleverly told in the third person, from two points of view. It is marvellous and fascinating and all merges together beautifully in the end.

The only other novel I have read by Atwood is The Handmaid's Tale. I admired Atwood's writing in the Handmaid's Tale, but found the material too oppressive to really enjoy. In both books, Atwood's creative genius is obvious. She combines simple everyday detail with the most extraordinary imaginative worlds like no one else I can think of. China Mieville does this, but the enjoyment of his books is largely from extraordinary environments he creates, for Atwood, the outer worlds are secondary to the turmoil going on in her protagonist's head.

The themes covered in the book are many, and a couple of them are shared with The Handmaid's tale: power and class; and the position of women in society. It is a story about guilt and the cost of "turning a blind eye". There is nothing especially joyful about Atwood's stories, she explores our darker motives. But so do all of the best novels don't you think?We are moved by tragedy. I do believe that The Blind Assassin would appeal to more readers than the strange world of The Handmaid's Tale.

What do you think of Atwood's work? Do you have a favourite Atwood novel?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Gathering by Anne Enright

The Gathering won the Man Booker Prize in 2007. It is a powerful book about loss and family. I hadn't read anything by Anne Enright previously but kept hearing good things about her work. Her most recent work, The Forgotten Waltz has also received good reviews.

The Gathering is mostly told in the first person, in the voice of 39 year old Veronica, as she attempts to come to terms with the death of her brother Liam. The title refers to the coming together of the remaining Hegarty family for Liam's wake. Veronica is one of nine surviving siblings.

Some of the themes covered are heavy but very well handled. Enright explores the impact of childhood sexual abuse and poverty at the individual, family and community level. She also explores intergenerational issues in a family, how an earlier generation's struggle with poverty and social restraints, can impact the current generation.  I also enjoyed Enright's exploration of the role of memory in our relationships and identity.

Even though the Hegarty family is extraordinary in many respects, not least for the large family size, I found I could relate to Veronica and some of her struggles. Enright poignantly captures the very essence of family; the mixed feelings that go with dealing with family members as one ages; the piecing together of what certain events mean and the harbouring of past hurts.

As with so many of the modern Irish writers, Enright writes like a dream. There is a sophisticated literary feel to the writing but it is also earthy and real. She evokes the faded atmosphere of the family home, right down to the sounds and smells, beautifully. There is also a real physicality to her descriptions that increases the power of her prose. She recreates the memories of childhood convincingly, complete with strong impressions and ambiguity.

This is perhaps the best book I have read in a long time about the drama and difficulties of being part of a family; the threads that unite and divide, and trying to outrun the past and forge one's own identity. The novel does end hopefully, and from beginning to end is just beautifully done. I highly recommend it.


Hello!  I am still here and still reading.

Books I have read in the last week or so and will be reviewing in coming days:

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (And yes I know most people have read it. I didn't think it would be for me, but as it turned out, I really liked it).

The Gathering by Irish writer Anne Enright. Fabulous book. The Irish writers still tend to rule my heart and it was nice to read a modern female Irish author.

And I am currently reading a very intersting memoir by British journalist Jon Swain, River of Time, covering the five years he spent in Cambodia and Vietnam 1970-1975.