The Blind Assassin

I have a trait, which may be very bad, of reading truly dreadful fiction when writing. Books so bad that I refuse to admit them into my LibraryThing catalogue. I mean awful tie-in fiction (and I mean really awful, not good stuff that gets called ‘Anji FAIL’ by fans) or 5-for-a-quid Regency bodice rippers (I once wrote a spoof Mary Sue Regency bodice ripper involving Vic’n'Bob* – thankfully, did not exist then).  I’m not even sure why (the bad reading habit, not the Mary Sue) but I think it may be as my brain can switch off whilst reading, or reassure itself that at least I’m not that bad a writer. Afterwards, like someone emerging from a desert, I drink up ‘proper’ fiction that I had previously been unable to get through. So it was with this.

The Blind Assassin
Margaret Atwood
(Virago, 2001)

I knew I should enjoy it. Quite aside from it ticking all the boxes of fiction I like – stories within stories, unreliable first person narration, non-chronological storytelling, fictional factual reporting – I just stalled on around page 30 a couple of years ago. Friends had told me it was good, that it was ‘my sort of thing’, but I set it aside with a postcard marking my FAIL point. Unlike some books you abandon,  I knew I should read it: I just couldn’t.

Then, all done with writing an unreliable first person narration (involving vampires and kawaii blokes in suits), I grabbed it from the “you’ve started so you must finish” shelf and flung it in my bag for a long work trip. This time, I raced through it, finishing it halfway home a few days – and lots of eating out – later.  I’m glad I did, as it is exactly the sort of book I ought to have read and all those recommendations were right.  I liked the way the pieces of the story assemble to form a whole, and the slightly waspish narrator’s voice. I love that it is a novel, called The Blind Assassin, about someone writing a non-fiction account of someone writing a novel called The Blind Assassin. That kind of recursiveness, and reflection on the act of creation, is beautiful when done well – and Atwood does it well.

The main flaw I found – and it’s a classic which is as much about the reader as the writer – is that the ‘twists’ seemed obvious from about one third of the way in.  I did entertain doubts: was Atwood the writer double-bluffing, or was the writer within The Blind Assassin going to surprise her readers? How to Read a Novel talked about the intertextuality of fiction: had I ‘solved’ the puzzle merely because I have read so many novels within novels? Or because the sub-genre of “ooh, I’m using ‘genre’ tropes in ‘proper’ literature!” novels is never as smart as it thinks it is and any reader of PKD would have worked it out just as quickly (c.f. Time Traveller’s Wife)? Of course the twist is not the key theme of the book: storytelling in its various forms is. And there’s no denying The Blind Assassin is a good read, and a smart and enjoyable one, which explores that theme wonderfully. But overall, I’m glad I didn’t force myself to read it sooner as I’d be annoyed. After the desert, though, it was just the right sort of novel.


*based on this dreadfulness, and I had forgotten this brilliance.

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