I didn't read a book by a female author at all last year. I was a little surprised when I realised that, so I decided to put it right this year. To start with here's a Booker Prize winning book by a legendary novelist. Now, I don't like to contradict the Booker Prize panel but I wasn't very impressed by The Blind Assassin.
It's essentially three books in one. The main narrative is the story of Iris Chase and her family from the beginning of the twentieth century, shortly before Iris was born, to the late 1990s with Iris in poor health and facing death. However, the bulk of the novel takes place between the wars.
Iris's story begins with her sister Laura committing suicide by driving a car off a bridge. Laura became a celebrity after her death thanks to a book called The Blind Assassin, which everyone assumes was written by Laura about her real-life affair with an unknown man. The man is a writer of pulp sci-fi books and he tells his lover a story about the planet Sakiel-Norn and a blind assassin who falls in love with the mute girl he is supposed to kill.
If these nested narratives make the book sound painfully post modern, don't worry, it isn't. However, the various stories bloat the book far more than is necessary. At 637 pages, it's at least 200 pages too long. Does nobody dare to edit Atwood?
The present day sections drag the most. We follow Iris as she goes on pointless errands that illuminate neither plot nor character, dwells on the fact that she doesn't want to die and makes banal, supposedly profound statements about the modern world.
I can't help wondering whether Atwood inserted these sections in an attempt to steer the novel away from melodrama. One of the downsides of a sprawling family saga such as this is that heavy emotional tragedies tend to figure quite prominently. There are ruinous business failures, unhappy marriages, alcoholic war veterans, clandestine affairs, secret abortions and various other tumults crammed in. Oh, and everybody dies by the end.
Perhaps Atwood thought that the more reflective present day segments would add literary weight to the saga. If so, she was wrong.
Worse is the fact that the twist at the end of the book would be obvious to the blind assassin himself before the halfway mark. It's so badly concealed that I found myself wondering whether Atwood wants us to figure it out.
Still, it isn't all bad. The two sisters are compelling characters. Iris, tricked into an unhappy marriage in the hope of saving her father's business, is a tragic figure in flashback and an understandably bitter one in the present day. Laura is genuinely enigmatic. Is she insane or just a troubled genius? We never really find out, unfortunately. There's probably an very good 400 page novel in here struggling to escape.