The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

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I managed to crack through this 600+ page novel in just under a week; this was largely due to the extra reading time afforded me by having to catch the train to London and back each day last week, but  I also must admit that this is a gripping and brilliant read.

When you’re young, you think everything you do is disposable. You move from now to now, crumpling time up in your hands, tossing it away. You’re your own speeding car. You think you can get rid of things, and people too—leave them behind. You don’t yet know about the habit they have, of coming back.

The Blind Assassin is my first Margret Atwood novel (though I do have The Handmaid’s Tale and Surfacing temptingly sat on my shelves…). It is a difficult book to describe – a real mixture of different genres all bundled up together, each strand full of mystery and intrigue.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

At first glance the novel appears to be the life story of Iris Griffin, the grand-daughter of a well known and once prominent industrialist. We learn about Iris’s family, her early years growing up with her sister, Laura, in their father’s large house, whilst he was off running the family button factory. Later we learn of the early death of their mother and its impact on the two girls, and of the decline in fortunes of the button business.  We then follow the course of Iris’s life as she gets older, covering her marriage of convenience to the newly-rich Richard Griffen, her entrance into high society, the birth of her daughter, separation and old age.

Interspersed with all of this there are newspaper cuttings, detailing various significant events of the time, often linked in some way to Iris’s family, yet also encompassing a fair slice of twentieth century history in the process. Plus there is the intense unfolding love story between a young political radical and an unnamed wealthy lady. This section itself includes the unfolding of a story which Alex, the young socialist, tells in instalments to his love, about an alien race on a distant planet, where blind assassins roam around, hired to kill off other citizens.

If my potted summary is a little disjointed, Margaret Atwood’s novel certainly isn’t. The book unfolds brilliantly, offering the reader more pieces of the jigsaw as it goes along; with later events often enabling earlier ones to be re-interpreted, often poignantly. A really beautiful piece of writing.

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Disgrace – J. M. Coetzee

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Following on from recently reading The Sea, the Sea and Possession, I decided to pick another Booker Prize winner off my shelves. According to the Oxfam receipt inside, it appears that I picked up this book in Brighton back in April 2002, so it’s had quite a time sitting in my study unread.

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

The novel details the fall from grace of David Lurie, a middle-aged scholar of Romantic poetry at a University in Cape Town. Lurie, whose looks and charm are beginning to fail him, finds himself at the centre of a public scandal, the details of which he freely admits, yet his refusal to repent of how he has acted leads to him losing his job and his reputation. Lurie decides to take some time out to visit his daughter on her isolated smallholding, but things only go from bad to worse for him and her after he arrives. Although focusing on the life of one man, Disgrace is really about the changing atmosphere of post-apartheid South Africa. Questions of belonging, identity and power pervade the narrative, and it is perhaps not surprising that David Lurie’s life – like that of his country – enters a period of extreme and uncomfortable turbulence.

The Sea, the Sea – Iris Murdoch

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After finishing Possession I thought I’d go for another long, Booker Prize winning novel, this time Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea. This is a fairly philosophical novel, exploring the strange ideas and obsessions of its protagonist, Charles Arrowby, a well known figure from the theatrical world, who decides to retire to the isolation of a house by the sea where he sets about writing his memoirs.

The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch

Charles has not been in his new home long when he happens to stumble across his childhood love, Mary Hartley Fitch, who is now a very unremarkable old lady, living in the nearby village with her retired husband. Charles soon becomes obsessed with winning back his old love and continuing the romance that they started all those years ago.

The interesting aspect in all this for the reader is that in this situation, as in various others, Charles is so totally self-deluded. Throughout the narrative, we read of Charles’ meandering thoughts and opinions, which are often partly discerning, yet also often slightly off-the-mark. They are sometimes pathetic but often quite humourous too.

I ate and drank slowly as one should (cook fast, eat slowly) and without distractions such as (thank heavens) conversation or reading. Indeed eating is so pleasant one should even try to suppress thought. Of course reading and thinking are important but, my God, food is important too. How fortunate we are to be food-consuming animals. Every meal should be a treat and one ought to bless every day which brings with it a good digestion and the precious gift of hunger.

As various old friends and lovers appear on the scene, things become more and more farcical, yet Charles will not see sense. In a way it would be easy to read Charles as being mad, which in a sense he is, but most of all he is just so totally caught up in his own selfish, petty, jealous notions that he is unable to see things for how they are.

This is an intriguing novel, very cleverly written, which puts the reader in a strange position, as everything is shown through the eyes of one who is revealed to be less then reliable. A really interesting work, well worth a read.

Then I felt too that I might take this opportunity to tie up a few loose ends, only of course loose ends can never be properly tied, one is always producing new ones. Time, like the sea, unties all knots. Judgements on people are never final, they emerge from summings up which at once suggest the need of a reconsideration. Human arrangements are nothing but loose ends and hazy reckoning, whatever art may otherwise pretend in order to console us.

Possession – A. S. Byatt

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I decided to pick this novel off my shelves as we were heading off to France on our yearly constitutional and I knew that our time there would entail more than a little poolside-reading, and what better opportunity does one get to enjoy a long, literary novel? The fact that it had won the Booker Prize also appealed, and so, chilled glass of vino in hand, I spend some happy hours reading Possession: A Romance.

Possession by A. S. Byatt

The narrative switches between historical and comtemporary stories, linked by a series of literary manuscripts which are discovered by the contemporary characters. Thus we find poetry, love letters and manuscripts interwoven with the narrative. As the title suggests, the novel explores the theme of possession in different guises: in what ways does an artist posses their own work? In what ways do those who come after them posses  the manuscripts or artifacts which they treasure? And in what sense does a biographer posses (or become possed by) their subject?

As well as exploring these and other themes, A. S. Byatt also manages to keep up a compelling narrative, which does compell you to keep turning the page. Rich, thought-provoking and enjoyable.

Midnight’s Children – Salmon Rushdie

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Midnight’s Children by Salmon Rushdie

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

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The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

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