The Self-Conscious Writer (Review of The Blind Assassin)

Ah, I love the holidays. I’ve been putting off reading The Blind Assassin for ages, simply because I despaired at how long it would take me to read, never mind the extra weight it would add to my bag. A combination of relaxing holiday time, a six-hour train journey to France and a bad back (I’m getting old) all conspired in me finishing the 600-page tome in less than a week. A merry Christmas indeed.

How I love Atwood. Her combination of engaging characters, subtle plotting and lyrical style make her the literary equivalent of a Christmas cake. It’s not lacking in substance, but also beautifully embellished. And it is layered, with each part enriching the next.

I kept stopping to read out delicious nuggets, little nibbles of visual detail like, “wild geese fly south, creaking like anguished hinges,” or my personal favourite, “I sometimes picture the entire town rising out of the shallow prehistoric ocean, unfolding like a sea anemone or the fingers of a rubber glove when you blow into it – sprouting jerkily like those brown, grainy films of flowers opening up that used to be shown in movie theatres.” It’s so evocative, yet not overly embellished. Her quirks of imagery allow – at one and the same time – a vivid imagining of the world she invites you into, as well as a new appreciation for the mundane things around you. It’s what great writers do; make you see the world differently.

It’s also inherently readable. Obviously, you cry, it’s a book – but all too often Booker prizewinners can be mired in their own subtext, wading around in complexity and obscurity until you lose the thread of interest. This book has an evocative sense of place, it grounds you firmly in a time and a setting, snags your interest on a range of hinted-at characters in the opening, with the promise of sinister things lurking beneath. We follow a pair of sisters, the story of their fraught childhood in Canada at the start of the First World War and beyond, and dig up the secrets and lies that lurk beneath the surface.

There are three completely different prose styles. One is the interruption of ‘factual’ newspaper articles that blithely report the events that happen to our protagonists. The other is the mysterious novel The Blind Assassin, hailed by those within the world of the book as a literary giant, a work of staggering weight. The amount we are allowed into this novel is handled deftly. Sometimes we read huge chunks of it, getting fully absorbed into this ‘other’ narrative, while at other times we are taken further away, and given brief glimpses of this life between pages. Then there is the overarching narrative, an old woman looking back over her life. The three are interwoven, quite abruptly at the beginning of the book, leaving you a little lost, but soon the threads of it draw out, and we are fully embedded in each nuance, as it is woven deftly throughout.

What I find most compelling, is the level of self consciousness employed in the writing, seen through the main protagonist. There are times when (see my review of Atonement) I find the ‘narrator as writer’ incredibly fake and frustrating. It can seem like a cop-out, a way of snagging the reader into believing something that isn’t really ‘true.’ While I didn’t mind it in The BFG, it certainly has its limitations elsewhere. Here, it’s brilliant. The narrator keeps asking herself why she writes. Who her audience is, what she hopes to gain from it, and what the product of it might be.  “Do I have some notion of leaving a signature, after all?”

What this does, of course, is open this out in a wider sense. Why, indeed, does anyone write? To look at modern opinions, many make the assumption that it is related to fame. That having a best-seller is the literary equivalent of hitting the front page of Heat magazine. However, I think it might be a little more subtle than that. Having read Atwood’s On Writers and Writing, she extends this even further, looking at what society perceives to be a ‘writer,’ the process of feeling like you are one yourself, and that you have something worth sharing with the world. All of these things are steps on the road. Examining the purpose behind writing and reading, for both people involved, is a quest for recognition, perhaps, but more importantly, a quest for identity.

It’s the metaphor of spinning or weaving that really resonates, as she is constructing the story: “I pay out my line. This black thread I’m spinning across the page.” This creates the sense of something tangible, a physical testament to time spent writing. Which has a sense of a legacy, an imprint to leave behind. “At the very least we want a witness. We can’t stand the idea of our own voices falling silent finally, like a radio running down.” Perhaps, like many things, we write in order to simply record the act of existing, even if we’re not sure how many people will listen to it when the source has disappeared.

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I'm a writer, teacher and drummer based in London. Short fiction and reviews are my main staples, along with some dabbling in novel writing.

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