If there’s one way to turn me off a book, it’s to include some kind of ridiculous sci-fi element.
Before you reach for your pitchfork, hear me out: this doesn’t apply to all sci-fi. If a book sets out to be science fiction, I can generally handle that. Sci-fi in a science fiction novel, fine. I’ve not read much but what I have read, I haven’t hated.
But sci-fi sneaking its way into a novel that sets out to be a different genre? Ick. It’s why I didn’t really like Cloud Atlas, why Never Let Me Go rankled and why I found my sister’s story of Alegna, the ten-year-old alien living among us, annoying when I read it aged six. But it’s just one of the many reasons why I didn’t get on too well with The Blind Assassin.
Every single bit of the story that featured a stupid made-up word (which were probably anagrams that I couldn’t be bothered to solve), completely turned me off. And that was a real problem because the novel-within-the-novel was essentially a sci-fi story about another planet where the titular blind assassin resides, sandwiched within the pages of a book that hops about from newspaper reports to memoirs, anonymous story telling and a never-ending description of how dull it is to be old.
It’s a shame because the story is actually really good; the twist that (after a while) you can see coming is still a clever one and it’s clearly a skillfully written novel.
What The Blind Assassin definitely isn’t is fast-paced. The story, which begins with its climax, slowly idles its way into an explanation. It moves at approximately the same speed as its elderly protagonist, Iris, who spends half her time explaining how slowly she can move and the other half going to the toilet in a café so she can read the graffiti. Like all stories, it’s ultimately about love and betrayal, love and abandonment, love and money.
The mysterious Laura Chase was a bit too bluntly drawn but still my favourite character, although bossy-boots housekeeper Reenie was also a crowd-pleaser.
Two bits stood out for me. First, about a quarter of the way through the book, Laura develops a fear of God and starts to worry about where exactly God is.
It was the Sunday school teacher’s fault: God is everywhere, she’d said, and Laura wanted to know: was God in the sun, was God in the moon, was God in the kitchen, the bathroom, was he under the bed? ... Laura didn’t want God popping out at her unexpectedly, not hard to understand considering his recent behaviour. …
Probably God was in the broom closet. It seemed the most likely place. He was lurking in there like some eccentric and possibly dangerous uncle, but she couldn’t be certain whether he was there at any given moment because she was afraid to open the door.
And around halfway through The Blind Assassin, Iris is on her honeymoon in Europe:
An old walrus-faced waiter attended to me; he had the knack of pouring the coffee and the hot milk from two jugs, held high in the air, and I found this entrancing, as if he were a child’s magician. One day he said to me – he had some English – “Why are you sad?”“I’m not sad,” I said, and began to cry. Sympathy from strangers can be ruinous.
Not sure exactly why I latched on to these two passages – probably because they contain feelings I’ve felt. I have definitely experienced the second, embarrassingly enough.
As I said during the doldrums of page 159, reading The Blind Assassin straight after Why DidI Ever probably didn’t do the former any favours – it was massively wordy by comparison, almost the polar opposite of Robison’s style (a couple of times I noticed clumsy, school-like phrases that I imagine Atwood regrets now). Although there were some overlapping themes – mental breakdown, misguided matches, abuse.
What it comes down to is that TBA just isn’t really to my current taste. It’s a bit too like Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen et al. But I’ll make a mental note to return to Atwood in five or ten years; I think I might enjoy her writing more then.
For now, I’m going to reward myself for getting through TBA by re-reading a favourite: Chris Bachelder’s Bear v. Shark.