The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood; Bloomsbury, London, 2000; pages 521, £16.99 (price in India Rs.764) (hardback).
IN a down-at-heel cottage above a gorge on the edge of a town not far from Toronto, a woman in her eighties sits writing. Conscious of her approaching death (her heart is 'acting up'), she has broken at last with a lifetime's practice of concealment, of stashing the truth away in the manner of the papers and mementoes mouldering in her battered travel trunk. Across a span of months (her bones aching in the humid heat of summer, her step cautious in winter's frozen treachery) the woman unwinds the past, sends it twisting and spiralling in an unstoppable black flow across the pages. For whose eyes, she is not clear. But the urgency of the project is insistent: impending foreclosure flays her on, reopening old wounds, forcing her to confront life in all i ts bewilderment and pain.
This, in the sparest of terms, is the framework of The Blind Assassin, the novel which has won for the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood this year's Booker Prize. This was the fourth time Atwood, a multiple award winner elsewhere in the world, had b een short-listed for the prize; her previous near-winners were The Handmaid's Tale (1986), Cat's Eye (1989), and Alias Grace (1996). In her latest book (the fifteenth novel in a body of work which includes poetry, children's fiction and several volumes of literary criticism), Atwood explores again a theme central to her fictional universe: what happens - to relationships, to human potential, to the possibility of happiness - when women are kept subordinate, stultified by their infer ior status and locked in silence.
Iris Chase, the woman who unravels her past across the pages of The Blind Assassin, is at first sight an improbable victim of history. The granddaughter of an entrepreneur who built an empire out of the manufacture of buttons and cheap clothing fo r the masses, she has lived for the most part cocooned from economic hardship. In her narrative, she conjures up the whimsical splendours of Avilion, the evocatively titled domain her grandparents built in celebration of their new wealth and status and t he place where she spent her childhood. Reliving her marriage to a young tycoon with political ambitions, she takes us into the sumptuous between-the-Wars world of the highly moneyed: the fur-draped fashions, the dinner parties, the Atlantic crossings on luxury liners. Such landscapes, replete with nostalgia, have in our own times yielded rich pickings to advertisers and commercial film-makers aware of the power of the past. In Atwood's case, however, evoking a class experience characterised by profliga cy and privilege is done not to beguile us or set the book on course for film rights. Rather, it establishes a polarity: that between material advantage and emotional poverty, between the possibilities opened up by access to plenty and the reality of fut ile, empty lives. In a real sense this is a political novel; it is also a morality tale.
To tell the story Atwood applies a structure which at first seems complex and disjointed. In the book's opening pages, information is thrown at the reader from a variety of sources: from a narrative we do not yet understand to be Iris'; from newspaper c lippings; and from a book, The Blind Assassin, written by Laura Chase, Iris' sister. The last carries immediate poignancy, for we already know Laura to be dead, her car having plunged from a bridge; there is speculation that it was suicide.
This choice of structure allows Atwood to introduce, from the start, a sense of the contended nature of experience: there is a world of difference between the clipped prose of the pro-establishment local paper and the dead Laura's unfolding of emotion (h er novel is a high-intensity story of unmarried love which generated shock waves following its publication in the late 1940s). The structure also builds in elasticity, enabling the writer not only to throw the past against the present but also to change pace, to intensify and then release in a way that tightens her hold on our sensibilities, propelling us deeper into the mystery.
There is a further dimension to this structure: through it we, the readers, find ourselves repeatedly revising the assumptions we formed at the novel's beginning. In the manner of a landscape viewed from a moving vantage point, the story shifts, rearrang es itself, discloses elements once hidden from view. To specify the changes would be to give away too much of the plot, reducing the novel's capacity to surprise and challenge. What Atwood is attempting, one senses, is not a bid for authorial cleverness designed to leave the reader stunned and bemused, but rather a journey towards the truth which invites her reader to question, reformulate and reinterpret. Despite its old technology form, this is an interactive novel.
For the reader who accepts the invitation, this is a journey into pain. Atwood wields her pen like the most deadly and delicate of knives, cutting through to the raw edge of emotion, exposing our areas of greatest vulnerability: our relationships with pa rents, with siblings, with lovers. Part of the stiletto sharpness of her writing derives from a use of language that is precise and alive to the sheer potency of words. The newly married Iris, locked into what is essentially a business alliance without e ven the semblance of love, finds her wedding trousseau replete with connotations:
That's my trousseau, I thought. All at once it was a threatening word - so foreign, so final. It sounded like trussed - what was done to raw turkeys with skewers and pieces of string. Toothbrush, I thought. I will need that. My body sat there, inert. Tro usseau comes from the French word for trunk. Trousseau. That's all it meant: things you put into a trunk. So there was no use in getting upset about it, because it just meant baggage. It meant all the things I was taking with me, packed away. (page 238)
Atwood's use of analogy, too, can bring the reader up short. When Iris' father, lamed and broken, returns home in his uniform from the First World War, his medals "are like holes shot in the cloth, through which the dull gleam of his real, metal body can be seen". On board ship at the start of her honeymoon, Iris watches professional dancers perform a passionless tango accompanied by music that is "jagged, hobbled - like a four-legged animal lurching on three legs. A crippled bull with its head down, lu nging".
As in earlier novels (for example, Alias Grace, a journey into the mind of Grace Marks, a nineteenth century murderess of particular notoriety), Atwood opens up a human life in such a way as to evoke a portrait of an age, one that teems with detai l and vitality. The emotional play of her central characters takes place in the context of, and is mirrored by, larger catastrophes: war, depression, Red-baiting, Fascist ascendancy. Historical events are presented not as background but as intrinsic elem ents that, as much as individual human character and weakness, warp lives and forestall possibilities. Running through this novel in a subtle, understated way is the dog-eat-dog reality of capitalism: the vicious combat between old money and economic ups tart, the calculated cruelty of lay-off and dole, the futility of seeking to endow business practice with fellow feeling and other human impulses.
This is also a book rich in a tongue-in-cheek humour that at several points had me laughing out loud. In a narrative that has a strong aural quality to it, a pervasive sense of voice play, Atwood makes artful use of the character of Reenie, the housekeep er at the ancestral home to whom Iris and Laura, having lost their own mother, turn for maternal attention. A working class woman with a no-nonsense outlook on life, Reenie offers, through her repertoire of proverbs, sayings and catch-phrases, a running commentary on events that both entertains and unsettles. But the primary source of humour is Iris herself: curmudgeonly and difficult in old age, she is possessed of a capacity for wry observation, an ability to lay bare the incongruities of life, the hu mour jostling the sadness.
Rich in texture, replete with themes, remorseless in its tapping into painful areas of our experience, The Blind Assassin is beyond quick characterisation or easy appraisal. To read it is to embark on a journey in which you, the reader, cannot esc ape confronting elements of your own past. Atwood's achievement, beyond the plaudits of the Booker panel and the praise of critics, resides in her capacity to summon us from the distractions of the present and make us look afresh at life - at our particu lar entanglement with the muddle of it all, the pain and the delight.