Women grow on trees
Atwood creates a world with a strange take on nature - and
maths - in The Blind Assassin, writes ADAM MARS-JONES.
Bloomsbury £16.99, pp525
At-wood's new novel is made up of three strands. There are
the memoirs of Iris Chase, tracing her progress from prosperous
beginnings, daughter of a button factory owner, through
a loveless marriage to a plutocrat to a solitary and brooding
are excerpts from The Blind Assassin, a posthumously published
novel which gave Iris's younger sister, Laura, a minor but
(thanks to women's studies) enduring reputation. Laura drove
off a bridge in 1945, 10 days after the end of the war.
there are the pulp science-fiction stories the hero of Laura's
book tells his lover in the dingy rooms where they meet.
He is a leftist on the run, convenient scapegoat for a factory
fire that was presumably an insurance fraud, while she is
a prisoner of privilege, sneaking away from her watchers
for a few risky hours of pleasure.
Atwood has three times been shortlisted for the Booker,
but her first novel to do so, The Handmaid's Tale in 1986,
is still probably her best-known work. That fantasia on
the oppression of fertility showed her talent in the area
of science fiction, displayed again in The Blind Assassin.
The pulp fantasies made up by the nameless hero of Laura's
book belong to a disreputable genre, but they are far the
most concentrated and resourceful narratives on offer here.
title of the book - both the one we hold in our hands, and
the one that Iris had published after Laura's death - comes
from one of his improvised serials, about a planet where
children are forced to make carpets until they lose their
sight. Then they are recruited as silent killers.
blind assassin, though, falls in love with the sacrificial
virgin he has been sent, as part of a planned coup d'état,
to kill. She has had her tongue cut out, as tradition demands,
so that she can't disfigure the ritual of her sacrifice
with comments of any kind. The heroine of the story-within-a-story
finds this tale harsh, although it is an exaggerated account
of her own plight, and her lover's: ours also is a planet
where the poor are sacrificed to the rich, and where the
system continues to find uses for those it has destroyed.
she asks for a happy story, she gets a story about the impossibility
of happiness instead. He tells her about two battle-weary
fighters who find themselves on a planet where all their
needs are taken care of, by the doting Peach Women of Aa'A,
women who grow on trees, on a stem running into the top
of their heads, 'picked when ripe by their predecessors'.
The moral of the story is that a paradise that you can't
get out of can only be hell.
other parts of Laura's book are less persuasive; it's easier
to imagine such a book making a local scandal at the time
of publication, with its relative frankness and society-girl
author, than being quoted 50 years later.
Updike has commented on the drawback of multiple time-schemes,
multiple narratives in general, the way they lessen the
momentum of the whole. A further drawback in the case of
The Blind Assassin is that the story's eventful period,
all the muted melodrama of abortions and asylums, runs from
the mid-Thirties to Laura's suicide 10 years later, while
the novel's expansive scheme requires the author to do a
lot of filling in. Iris's memoirs, written in the 1990s,
contain much philosophical reflection that seems to mark
time: 'You want the truth, of course. You want me to put
two and two together. But two and two doesn't necessarily
get you the truth. Two and two equals a voice outside the
window. Two and two equals the wind.'
truth that emerges is, in fact, eminently neat, in a murder-mystery
sort of way. The surprises have the effect of further flattening
out the characters, the villains becoming blacker, the martyrs
yet more devoted. More of a grey area would be welcome.
The demands of Atwood's tricksy plot have produced a curiously
reactionary world picture, in which men have political convictions,
while women's lives contain nothing more serious than love.
three researchers working for her, Atwood has come up with
plenty of background about labour relations in Canada between
the wars, but the political elements of the book never seem
more than cladding bolted on to the romantic tale. He so
dark, sarcastic and righteous, she so vulnerable in her
youth and lovely gown.