The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

Wow. This is a brilliant book – complex, thought-provoking, gripping, surprising and, I think, covering some of the big historical moments of the twentieth century from the perspective of women who are forced to compensate for their powerlessness with determination and wit.

Written in the first person by Iris Chase-Griffin, it tells the story of her and her sister Laura – who had driven herself off a bridge fifty years earlier.

Beginning in rural Canada in the early twentieth century, Iris and Laura are well-off children of a family which had made its fortune in button manufacturing. As the Depression kicks in, though, their fortunes change, their father turns to drink, as the economy collapses and the business folds, leading to unemployment in the town, circling by capitalist Richard Griffin and eventually the death of their father.

Iris ends up marrying Richard Griffin, to endure their family get financial support as the business closes down, and the narrative from Iris covers all these years – from the pair as young children to just after Laura has driven off the bridge.

Iris is an excellent character – until the end of the book her steeliness and resourcefulness are hidden to the reader and, importantly, to her husband Richard. She is treated at times horrifically and at others like a child by him and his scheming sister, and it’s only at the end of the book that Iris reveals what she’d really being doing all those years.

Laura is an intriguing character, highly moral and obsessed with God in most ways but rebellious and clear-sighted in others. We learn of her apparent relationship with Alex, a communist sympathiser who burnt down one of her father’s factories, and after Iris is married to Richard, how she is treated like a lunatic by Richard. In fact, none of this is quite as it seems and it transpires that in fact Richard and Laura had a very different relationship, as did Iris and Alex.

An apparently posthumously published book by Laura has led to her becoming an acclaimed literary celebrity – and chapters from the book, called the Blind Assassin, punctuate the book, telling a story that we assume until the end is a semi-autobiographical account of her relationship with Alex – a shocking, pulp-style tale of a well-off women carrying out a secret affair with a hard drinking, itinerant writer.

This is such a good novel – characters, the style, the complexity, the cagy narrator – but more than anything it’s like a take on the Great American Novel that tries to highlight the role of women in the great themes of history, economics and politics. Iris, Laura and even Richard’s sister have no power in the patriarchal world in which they live and so are forced to use ingenuity and determination to find ways to live with meaning and purpose and a future – ways that ultimately affect their lives, and those of their female children, detrimentally.

“But perhaps Laura wasn’t very different from other people after all. Perhaps she was the same – the same as some odd, skewed element in them that most people keep hidden but that Laura did not, and this was why she frightened them.”

Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

History of Wolves – Emily Fridlund

A thought provoking and beautifully written book about family, relationships and the essentials of being human.

Linda is a teenage girl living with her parents by the lakes in Canada after an experiment in communal living broke down. A bit of an outsider, she latches on to a new family that moves into a cabin across the lake. She befriends the young Mum, Patra, and becomes a babysitter and stand-in sister for the young son, Paul.

But then the Dad – Leo – returns, a scientist and it turns out Christian Scientologist. Linda feels a spare part but then it gets worse. Paul seems to be ill, but the parents’ faith means medical treatment is forbidden…

A lot of this book is about how Linda reacts, or doesn’t, when Paul falls ill. In some ways it asks how someone who’s lived as an outsider might deal with a dilemma; but for many people the response may well be the same. It might be hard to see what’s going on, to not be blinded by the father, by the mother’s relationship with him, the feeling of being replaced, and it all happens fast. Who could say how they’d react in this situation.

Likewise, Linda thinks of herself as an outsider, but actually is she so much more an outsider than other teenagers? It’s hard to penetrate what’s perceived from what’s real.

A big theme of this book is, if you like, thought and action. Can you be held responsible for your thoughts? Mr Griegson, a teacher Linda has in her early teens, turns out to have images of young kids on his computer but never have acted on anything like it. Linda didn’t think or act to protect Paul. Leo’s thoughts and actions are out of kilter with modern world views. Big questions.

And the book is very much about the nuclear family and its limits – the commune collapsed, but are the dysfunctional nuclear families of Linda or Paul any better? If anything it’s the mutual relationships between families, as Linda cares for Paul and his Mum, that makes for the strongest set-up – the history of wolves of the title perhaps?

For me this is another brilliant book in an oeuvre of what seems to be ‘desolation fiction’: stories set in remote locations where the characters are thrown back to the bare essentials of life: wilderness, relationships, survival.

Canada – Richard Ford

Read August 2015

The story of a boy, Dell, and his sister, whose lives are transformed when their parents, fairly desperate but highly unlikely criminals, rob a bank.
When they are caught, the mother arranges for them to be transported to Canada to live with the strange brother of her friend. Berner, the sister, runs away, leaving Dell to make the journey alone, where he experiences a strange, desolate and ultimately violent period of time. It appears that after this he establishes a normal if somewhat detached life, becoming a teacher and, possibly, writer. Berner’s life, from the little we see and hear of it from Dell, is more troubled and plagued by bad relationships and drink, and the book ends, fifty years or so after the initial incidents, with Dell visiting her as she dies.
Themes – the whole idea of America’s rural land as a place where people can invest, reinvent and hide their acts is a major theme, with Dell’s parents and Arthur Remlinger both thinking they can get away with robbery and murder by simply disappearing in to the large land of America and Canada.
We also see a lot about deception and the ways people hide their different natures and the ways they hide them from themselves.
And what is interesting is that Dell, despite all he has been through, is a fairly untroubled character. He is somewhat distances, detached, and on a quest to understand what happened but importantly, without digging too deep into how people think and feel. He wants thing to be surface level only, whilst knowing that they aren’t. It’s interesting to see, and have a story told through the voice of, a person who isn’t crazed or duplicitous but rather shows remarkable resilience in the face of a difficult and troubled upbringing. His voice throughout is one of simple and honest explanation, though still searching, indicating that people can and do live through terrible experiences and survive.