First Sentence: Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.
Winner of the Booker Prize in 2000 this is one of Margaret Atwood’s better known novels. Fifty years on from the tragedy mentioned in the first sentence, Iris Chase is looking back on the mysterious death of her sister. Interspersed with all this reminiscing is the story of Iris herself in the present day as an elderly lady, there is also a is a story within a story, a roman à clef published by Iris after Laura’s apparent suicide, a novel which turned Laura into a cult figure after her death. Inside this story is yet another one: a pulp science fiction tale entitled The Blind Assassin. All of these stories combine with scattered newspaper articles from the era to gradually reveal a hidden truth about the Chase sisters and Laura’s death. The moment of Laura’s death is the great tragedy of the book. Everything that surrounds this event is all part of the tragedy however and needs to be told in order to gain a true understanding of the tragedy:
But in life, a tragedy is not one long scream. It includes everything that led up to it. Hour after trivial hour, day after day, year after year, and then the sudden moment: the knife stab, the shell-burst, the plummet of the car from the bridge.
This novel was a delight to read and a deserved Booker winner. In particular, the interplay between the various stories and how it all unfolds is a masterclass in narrative structure. Together with characters who come to life and exquisite writing, this is a truly enjoyable read and Atwood is an author I’ll be reading more of in the future.
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Last Sentence: By the time you read this last page, that – if anywhere – is the only place I will be.
Last Sentence explained: “Why is it we want so badly to memorialise ourselves?”. This question seeps through the entire book and is one Iris is constantly asking herself. The final sentence, and in turn, the entire book is addressed to her estranged granddaughter Sabrina. It is written as an explanation for Sabrina of her family’s history and Iris is well aware that she will be dead by the time it is read. As the novel progresses it becomes apparent that the novel within the novel (The Blind Assassin) is based on real events BUT, it is not Laura writing about her affair with Alex as we have been led to believe, but rather it is Iris herself writing about her extramarital affair with Alex. After Laura’s death (she kills herself when she learns about this affair), Iris decides to publish the book but rather than using her own name she publishes it under Laura’s name. The novel then ends with Iris confessing all of this (in the form of an unpublished autobiography) to Sabrina…
Random quotes from the book:
“He gave his version of a smile – a thin crack in his face, like mud drying – opened the car door for me, and installed me in the passenger seat.”
“It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.”
“It was like talking to a sheet of white blotting paper: the words went out of my mouth and disappeared behind her face as if into a wall of falling snow.”
“Smiling chickens offering platters of their own fried body parts, a grinning Mexican wielding tacos.”
“The living bird is not its labelled bones.”
“Lugubrious. I know it; and sentimental as well. But please bear with me. The dying are allowed a certain latitude, like children on their birthdays.”
“A war is a huge fire; the ashes from it drift far, and settle slowly.”
“Unshed tears can turn you rancid. So can memory.”