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Margaret Atwood

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Title: The Blind Assassin
Author: Margaret Atwood
Year: 2000

This being the third book I read by Margaret Atwood, expectations were pretty high. My first encounter with this author was with Oryx and Crake earlier this year, and even though I did not like The Handmaid’s Tale as much, these two books told me clearly that Atwood is a skilled author. As was the case with The Handmaid’s Tale I do not find the actual story in The Blind Assassin very interesting, but since it is so beautifully written, it is worthwhile anyway. This novel is also more complex and somewhat more interesting to regard from an author’s point of view.

The plot in The Blind Assassin is rather complex, because it consists of many stories superimposed and intermingled with each other. To begin with, the main protagonist is Iris Chase, who is writing an account of her own life, as well as that of her sister Laura’s, who has just committed suicide. In this perspective, there are two chronological threads, one in the present, when Iris is old, and the other in the past, when the two sisters grew up. Interspersed throughout this tale is a story called The Blind Assassin, published by Iris after Laura’s death, but drawing from both sisters’ ambiguous relationship with a certain Alex Thomas, a political radical. This story also contains a story-within-a-story; a fantasy tale about a blind assassin. Even though this multi-layered plot is hard to follow in the beginning, it is not a problem later on, but rather adds to the overall feeling of quality.

In fact, I think this novel would be very boring were it not for the complexity of the plot itself. Sure, the book is very well written and I will keep reading Margaret Atwood for this very reason, but apart from that, I cannot say the stories themselves are all that entertaining. I find the characters and settings convincing and described with great skill and depth, but their still are not overwhelmingly interesting. Regardless of that, however, language and composition are good enough to make this novel somewhat better than The Handmaid’s Tale, which is good because it means that I definitely will not hesitate to read more novels written by Margaret Atwood. Four snails is not brilliant, but it is still very good.

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Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Year: 1985

In my opinion, Margaret Atwood established herself as a brilliant author with Oryx and Crake, published in 2003. Therefore, I hesitated a short while before reading The Handmaid’s Tale, since it is written almost twenty years earlier. Some authors really get the hang of writing after a long time and what if those twenty years were essential? Still, I had heard much good about the novel, so I tried it anyway. My premonitions were not entirely false, but not completely true either.The Handmaid’s Tale is a nice novel, but it is far from being as impressive as Oryx and Crake.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes the form of an account of a woman’s life in a future, dystopian society in which women are valued only for their ability to bear children. Much of the novel is spent describing this hypothetical society and even though there is a plot, it is obviously not the  important bit. The novel consists of a number of different chapters, many of them flashbacks, others taking place “now”. The world thus depicted works on many levels; it is depressing and carefully thought-out, but it is it interesting?

I am not sure, to be honest. The descriptions are good in themselves, but I do not find the society terribly interesting, which means that too much time is spent on something I do not quite enjoy. This is a pity, because it is obvious that the author has put much thought into her creation. Fortunately, there are other things which are genuinely good, such as language and style. The personal reflections feel genuine, they really convey the impression that this is a recording of something that has actually taken place, that the unnamed main character is a real person. Kudos for this; it makes the novel more than worthwhile. However, it is not enough to make it brilliant.

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Title: Oryx and Crake
Margaret Atwood
Year: 2003

Strangely enough, my most prominent impression of Margaret Atwood before I actually read any of her books, is that she is quite silly in trying to categorise books that are clearly science-fiction as something that is not (although I approve of the term “speculative fiction”, which is allegedly what she preferred instead for Oryx and Crake as well as The Handmaid’s Tale). Oryx and Crake consists of two story lines dispersed in time, one of them telling the story of Snowman after the fall of civilisation as we know it, and the other explaining the events leading up to that downfall, also focused on Snowman (or Jimmy, as he was called then).

Central to both threads are the main character’s relationship to the other two protagonists, Oryx and Crake, from whose names the title is derived. Oryx is a girl who Jimmy has seen on a porn site in his adolescence, who in some mysterious way manages to touch him deeply and has great impact on his way of thinking. Crake is his mate from school, and a genius, working his way up through the genetic engineering enterprises that seem to be ruling an increasing part of novel’s world. Still, it is Jimmy who is the main character and even though the others are of great importance, it is he who narrates and it is his thoughts and emotions that matter most.

Since the chronology of the novel is not straightforward (the post-apocalyptic part only gives clues to the reasons of the current state of affairs, and the other thread takes its time working up to the explanation), the reader only gets glimpses of what is happening, but still enough to create and patch up interesting speculations from the very start. In short, information is portioned out in an interesting and skillful way.

Oryx and Crake alternates between describing Snowman’s despairing situation together with the enigmatic Crakers (who seem human, but obviously are not), and Jimmy’s life before the catastrophe, focusing on the stampeding research on genetic engineering and the breakdown of civilisation. Even though I do net feel that credibility is the main target, the story is carefully thought out and feels solid.

Contrary to what my statement above might convey, credibility is still what makes this novel worthwhile, but it is not the extrapolation of today’s environmental problems or overpopulation that interest me. Instead, it is the thrilling, touching and interesting story of Jimmy himself, a story made plausible by nuances of language, as well as by small details in the narration. Seldom have I come a cross a more lively description of a character’s inner feelings that, at the same time as being touching, also are interesting.

In addition to this, the language is brilliant, almost good enough to merit a read even if the rest of the book would have been totally worthless. Atwood employs a witty, realistic and sometimes also funny language that truly enables the reader to get close to Jimmy and get under his skin. Also, the life he leads and the themes thus covered have much bearing on the word today (such as child porn, genetic engineering, environmental issues and corporate power). The difference between this novel’s and others’ approach to these themes is that, in Oryx and Crake, Atwood manages to make them relevant and touching. They are not superficial. Instead, through straightforward and often brutal language usage, they seem to reach their intended goals without being overly moralising or pretentious. By talking about these issues mediated by a hypothetical future, they are made manageable (I do not think that I would have appreciated a novel focusing on these issues if that was the superficial focus as well as the deeper one).

Conclusively, I think that Oryx and Crake is a novel most people, if not everybody, ought to read. If you are not familiar with science-fiction as a genre, books like this one serve as excellent introductions, because they show very clearly that even though the story takes place in another time than our current one, the novel has much to say about our world today. Also, the author is competent enough to merit reading regardless of genre. I will definitely read more by Margaret Atwood, and I hope that you will, too.

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