September 2011

[Our September choice benefited from World Book Night which donated a million books, 25 different titles, last April.  Again in 2012, tens of thousands of people will gift books within their communities to spread the joy and love of reading.  We want to especially thank Rachel for thinking of the Withiel book groups.]

Winner of several awards, including the Man Booker prize in 2000, Margaret Atwood’s literary masterpiece The Blind Assassin was our choice for this month. Atwood, whose previous work has covered a range of genres from feminism to science fiction, here uses multiple approaches, deftly weaving them together into a fascinating whole.  Newspaper clippings tell objective facts, the personal narrative gives a subjective perspective and story-telling offers fantasy – all different ways of presenting reality.

The novel is made up of three strands and takes the form of gradual revelations about the life of the protagonist, Iris Chase. It is ostensibly a record written by her in her eighties for her granddaughter so she will know what really happened in Iris’ life.  Iris and her sister Laura grow up in Canada in the first half of the last century. As daughters of a successful industrialist, they lead sheltered lives until the depression and war challenge this comfortable life style. Iris has an unhappy marriage to a wealthy and powerful local figure while Laura commits suicide after the end of the war. A book attributed to Laura called ‘The Blind Assassin’ is published posthumously and is a great success.  Nesting within this historical fiction of a family saga are two other stories.  One is a romance of a secret love between a socialist on the run and a society lady who are compelled to meet in secret often in dingy and seedy surroundings.  Atwood powerfully conveys the intensity of this relationship, using the squalor of the setting to emphasize the purity of their feelings. Their names are never revealed in the romance so that it is not clear until later in the main story whether the ‘she’ is Iris or Laura. The final novel within a novel is a pulp fiction story related by the ‘he’ of the lovers, Alex, during their trysts.  This  science fiction tale is written with all the skill in this genre for which Atwood has become famous. However it also has symbolic value representing Alex’s view of society and his doomed love affair.

Many of us loved the book and found the intricacies made it unputdownable, though for some the complexities were daunting.  We had some discussion about Iris’ character.  Was she the rather mousy biddable wife and indifferent mother of the family saga or a strong intelligent woman whose reality lay in her affair? We gained various insights into the social history of the period, which was one of labour unrest and depression while  the wealthy lived lavishly. Above all, Atwood’s powerful writing moved us and demonstrated why this book is an award winner.

We meet again on 13 October when we will discuss Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger.

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