<%-- Page Title--%> Book Review <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 118 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

August 15, 2003

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Where Women grow on trees

Margaret Atwood creates a world with a strange take on nature - and maths - in The Blind Assassin, writes ADAM MARS-JONES.

The Blind Assassin
Margaret Atwood
Bloomsbury £16.99, pp525

Margaret 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 old age.

There 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.

Then 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.

Margaret 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.

The 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.

One 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.

When 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.

The 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.

John 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.'

The 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.

With 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.


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