Who is the Blind Assassin in Atwood ‘ s 2000 Booker winner ?

downloadWith the Booker nomination for Testaments , I picked up The Blind Assassin as my first read for my Booker project . Dystopia is not my genre and so I didn’t pick up The Handmaid ‘ s Tale . Now , I guess I have to give a shot at dystopia too with The Testaments ‘  split – win . . .

Plot summary :

Iris Griffen – Chase , the narrator is reminiscing about her life until the suicide of her younger sister Laura at the age of 25 . Iris published Laura ‘ s The Blind Assassin posthumously which had its own repercussions for Iris .  Interspersed in Iris ‘s narrative are the chapters from Laura ‘ s scandalous debut`, where two illicit lovers amuse themselves during their secret trysts  by telling a story about the eponymous Blind Assassin . Through Iris ‘ s narrative and the narrative in TBA , we come to know about the Chase family and the secrets it holds today . . .

My thoughts on the book :

The title of the book intrigued me from the start . Why would Atwood name a book after a roman a clef in the  book was my question .  On the surface , there is no significance to the title beyond it being the title of Laura ‘ s book .  But as I read the book , a thought occurred whether the title might be a reference to one of the characters in the book . I wanted to identify the character for whom the possible – sobriquet title is the best fit . ( Am I getting the word correctly ? Or is it something else ? )

I did not have to look too far or read too much between the lines to identify  who The Blind Assassin  might be . My idea is that Iris Chase – Griffen , the octogenarian narrator is the best fit for the term The Blind Assassin , whose actions  inadvertently led to the demise of her sister Laura . While she herself recounts being blamed for her husband ‘ s death by her sister – in -law , she does not seem to recognize her role in her sister ‘ s death or if she does , she does not say anything to that effect . Perhaps she did not want to incriminate herself when there are several other external factors which also had a role in Laura ‘ s death . The latter scenario  is the most probable one .  But I would say ,  while there were other factors too ,  they would not have pushed Laura over the edge if only she had had a sympathetic elder sister to turn to in times of distress – at the very least , for moral support if not for anything else .

But Iris is not the typical ” the – second – mother ” elder sister that literature is often fond of portraying elder sisters as  –  she is somewhat of an antithesis to the above said elder sister .  And that is where the problem lies . Let me point out the instances when Iris could have redeemed the situation with some fundamental concern which  one stranger might show to another when he discerns some cause for it with the other ‘ s situation .  Any reader knowing Iris around page 100 or so , would know better than to expect more of her .

Iris has always known that Laura was not happy with her marriage to Griffen . Iris is always somewhat careful not to prod too deep into Laura ‘ s emotions afraid of what she might have to deal with , understandably given Laura ‘ s ” sensitive ” nature . But , one would expect her to lend atleast a sympathetic ear  when Laura turns to her for some comfort in times of distress  . While Iris seemingly does the above all , we get to read  about her true feelings underneath all those mandatory gestures  and it ‘ s somewhat sickening . Surely , can ‘ t a younger sister count upon a shoulder to lean on from the elder one ?

She cried then , and I put my arms around her , the time – worn gesture from when she was little  . Just stop howling . If I ‘d had a lump of brown sugar I would have given it to her , but we were past the brown – sugar stage by then . Sugar  was not going to help .

Some readers might say that Iris was not in a position to acknowledge the truth  in Laura ‘ s  words about their new life in the Griffen home and to act decisively about it  ( of which Iris says she did not realize the true colors of  Richard and Winifred  !!! ) .  While that argument can be accepted  to a certain extent , one cannot accept Iris ‘ callousness towards Laura ‘ s feelings and fears . We don ‘ t see several  such exchanges  ( forget confidences . . . ) between the sisters which is also indicative of  how close the sisters are. Perhaps , during the early days , following her father ‘ s death and subsequent removal to the Griffen house only Laura reached out to her more . But Iris ‘ response effectively stopped Laura from confiding in her . . .

What makes Iris ‘ negligence appalling is that she expects Laura to also be satisfied the same way she is satisfied with the new life – the riches , the balls , the high – society which their father ‘ s precarious finances and old – fashioned ways had not introduced them to . Now that she has got the money also to spend , along with the prominent family name , Iris ,is too busy enjoying her life . She never gives a thought to Laura ‘ s increasingly erratic behavior . It looked like she was satisfied handing over the responsibility of the guardianship of a younger sibling to anyone who would be willing to take it off her hands –  think about the meeting with the head mistress for instance . . .  We know how this arrangement played out in the Griffen household : with an unconcerned / pushover elder sister who is keen only in looking out for herself  ,  the Griffen siblings had the opportunity to dictate the aspects of Laura ‘ s life too much which they did . Remember the time , when Winifred decided that Laura can volunteer for the  organization which did hospital visits ? And the plans for the debut ?

But the scene which took this indifference a notch higher is the one Iris unquestioningly  accepts Richard ‘ s & Winifred ‘ s  words about what happened with Laura . Iris ‘ tears  when she gets the news of Laura ‘ s confinement seem to be like the tears of an actress playing a part of a damsel in distress  :  a few tears in the white handkerchief  , some sniffs and then nothing . If one remembers Iris ‘ s  mourning for her father , the tears for Laura can be seen as a huge improvement . [ If I remember correctly there were some questions about why Richard had concealed her father’s death from her and  there were no more once Richard gave his sugar-coated dismissive answers . ]

One would expect Iris to be more careful about what she tells Laura especially after her ordeal at the asylum . Iris ‘ s words indicate that even she saw the need but still she goes ahead and says the last thing that Laura would want to hear –  that her sacrifice was in vain . Those words sapped out any hope of a life she looked forward to ” after the war ”  and later , the same day , she drove the car off the bridge .

I have picked out only certain instances to illustrate my reasons for picking out Iris among all the characters for the dubious distinction of being the blind assassin .  If you pick up the book you are sure to pick out other scenes which drive home the point .

You would not need one more new reader of Atwood to come up with the same boring words – beautiful , intelligent to describe her writing .  Atwood ‘ s writing impressed me with the innovative narrative techniques like the newspaper articles , the graffiti , the roman a clef and a lot more .

And here are some of my favorite passages –

. . . Beginnings  are sudden , but also  insidious . They creep up on you sideways , they keep to the shadows , they lurk unrecognized . Then ,  later ,  they  spring .

. . . A lot of clothes  ,  the styles and colors outmoded now , shed butterflies ‘  wings . A lot of dinners , not always  very good ones . Breakfast , picnics ,  ocean voyages , costume balls ,  newspapers , boating on the river . Such items do not assort very well with 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 . .  .

Drowned now –  the tree as well , the sky , the wind , the clouds . All  she has left is the picture . Also the story of it .  The  picture is of happiness , the story not . Happiness is a garden walled with glass : no  way in or out . In Paradise there are no stories , because there are no journeys . It ‘ s loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward , along its twisted road . 

If you have any thoughts on the above post , please do share them in the comments section below .

If you have not picked up the book , I would  urge you to pick up this book definitely . I hope the plot summary intrigued you sufficiently enough . . . If you had already read the book ,  what do you think of picking out Iris Chase – Griffen as the Blind Assassin ? Or do you have another character in the book who would be better suited for the sobriquet ?

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The Unexpected Guest by Agatha Christie ( novelized by Charles Osborne )

downloadThis is a novelization by Charles Osborne of a play by Agatha Christie of the same name . This is my first audio book by the  ” inimitable ” Hugh Fraser as a lady had described the narrator in her comment . This was my introduction to Hugh Fraser and I am not aware of his reputation .

( Just now googled to the person who has been praised to the skies  for the narration of an audio book – if there are any Hugh Fraser fans , please put down my ignorance to having very little zero idea about actors from other countries  who had started their careers  before 1990 s  . . . Can ‘ t say I know several from Bollywood also . . )

* Review starts here *

Plot summary :

Michael Starkwedder has run his car into a ditch on a foggy night . He visits a nearby house in the isolated spot where he finds the dead body of an invalid man and a woman who holds a gun and confesses to the murder . He gets to know that the couple are the Warwicks – Richard Warwick , an ex big – game hunter and his wife ,  Laura Warwick . On getting to know more about Richard Warwick , Starkwedder decides that a beautiful woman like Laura should not languish in prison even if she had committed the crime .

So , he masterminds a drama , for the benefit of the police and the other inmates of the house . Laura goes with his plan and they lay the blame upon a man named MacGreggor from Richard ‘ s past , whose son had been run over by Richard .

So , what happens next when the police come into the picture ? Do they discover the drama being staged by the duo and unmask the real killer ? Or do Laura Warwick and Michael Starkwedder dupe the police also successfully ,  as they did the other inmates of the house ?

My thoughts on the book : 

Halfway through the book , having read several Christie creations over the years , I had actually predicted who the murderer was correctly except that I fell for the red – herrings quite badly when they came . However , with the big reveal scene , Christie again managed to surprise me with the string of events  . Charles Osborne has nailed the Christie tone – the narrative could have been from Christie ‘ s pen for a reader who is not aware of the fact that is a novelization of Christie ‘ s play by another  writer [ Osborne has however retained the dialogues from Christie ‘ s script for the play ] . With multiple suspects for whom Christie has supplied with enough motives to kill the victim ,  the reader is once again treated to a solidly plotted closed – circle mystery from Christie .

Yes , the narration was really good by Hugh Fraser . . . With just an audio recording time of 3:31:26 , it can be easily completed with a single sitting . The voices of the different characters were distinct that the reader would have had  no difficulty in identifying which character was speaking , even if the man had read the script of the play . . . On the whole , it was a very satisfying first – time audio – book experience  .

However there are a few observations I would like to record :

  • Only Christie ‘ s characters are daredevils who are game enough for an entanglement with the police to the extent that he is ready to manufacture evidences and fabricate stories because he wants to get a suspect off the police radar and SUCCEEDS in doing so easily  .  Is this the author taking a sly dig at the competency of the police force ?
  • A random stranger becomes  almost a part of the murder victim ‘ s family during the investigation  , because he had witnessed a man running from the house in the dark leaving behind the murder weapon  . . . ( I mean , why would the police detain a man for more than a day if he had not seen the face of the murderer except for procuring the murder weapon dropped by the murderer ? Why doesn ‘ t he get into the car once his questioning is over and leave the place ?  )  . I could not come to terms that a man easily becomes a guest in a house  and the police not getting suspicious about it . . . Again , it boils down to the same question : Is this the author taking a sly dig at the competency of the police force ?

Scenes like these are somewhat fantastic and would have been trashed if it had been written by another writer who does not have Christie ‘ s reputation . He or she would be told off as a writer who manufactures fantastic scenarios to drive the plot . But for Christie , the readers are happy not to question any of the events and allow her to tell the story her way . This is not an isolated instance of some fantastic – plot – elements inclusion , but still , Christie ‘ s unequaled storytelling  and the way she keeps the readers  guessing till the last  15 minutes never let her down .

Rating : 3. 5 / 5

If you have already read the book , tell me your thoughts about the book in the comments section below . . . Is there something in the post you disagree with ? Feel free to write about it as well in the comments section . . .

For those who want to check out the audio-book , here is the link

Until the next review then . . .

 

 

Book review : 10 Minutes 38 seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

download (3)I had guessed it right that this book would make it to the Booker Prize shortlist . The premise of  a life – story told through the final string of memories that the clinically dead person has , before the brain shuts down , was fascinating . During the final moments , when the brain tries think in its oxygen – deprived state , obviously it is going to throw up the memories / impressions which it had formed strongly . . .

The book is divided into three sections – Mind , Body and Soul .

Mind

As it can be easily guessed , the Mind section tells the story of Tequila Leila , through her swansong – memories . Somehow , the mind seems to ” remember ” every object of her memory by its smell and taste  – curious , isn ‘ t it ? With every ticking minute , Leila ‘ s brain throws up another deep – seated memory – the taste of spiced goat stew , the goat sacrificed by her father to celebrate the birth of her brother ; the taste of the home – made lemon & sugar waxing mixture used by the women in the neighborhood to wax their legs ; the taste of cardamom tea shared with a handsome University student whom she fell in love  with , when he takes shelter in the brothel where she works ; the smell and taste of watermelon and the memories of a summer vacation with family . . .

Every memory gives us a glimpse into a key event in Leila ‘ s life and the friend she made because of that incident . . .

Leila & her friends – their story 

Leyla Afife ( full of virtue )  Kamile ( high in merit ) , the daughter of a tailor in the city of Van , rechristened herself as Tequila Leila ,  following her elopement from her home and subsequent entanglement with prostitution in Istanbul . Yes , her middle and last names seem to make a mockery of her . . .

She has five close friends in the city of Istanbul – Nostalgia Nalan , Sabotage Sinan ( the only man in this girl gang ) , Jameelah , Hollywood Humeyra and Zaynab122 . Each has his / her own story on how they ended up where they are today and how he / she became friends with Leila . Their stories are as fascinating as Leila ‘ s . Like her , they are from the fringes of the society and Istanbul ,  the  bustling Turkish capital would not miss them if one of them turns up dead one day . . . Like Leila , they too , might become news on national television if they were also murdered gruesomely ; the newspapers might carry reports about their deaths , but they will first seek to reassure the ” normal female citizens ” that there is no threat for them . They had known all of this but until Leila ‘ s death they had not been slapped on the face with it . . .

The author uses several significant events of Leila ‘ s short life as pointers to the patriarchal society ‘ s aspects  . Some of them below :

  • how her mother ‘ s frequent miscarriages ( a few even nearly fatal ) except for Leila ‘ s birth  did not deter her father to keep trying for a son . . .  And how her mother relies on the birth of the child ( preferably a boy ) to cement her place in the family  , her being the second wife of  Leila ‘ s father  .
  • how right – wing ideologies slowly infiltrate ordinary families when the men of the family , like Leila ‘ s father ,  are brainwashed by right-wing ” spiritual leaders ” into restricting the women folk  and the children of the house  in order to  ” put an end to this man – made regime and bring back God – made sharia ” .  So , meetings with any of the progressive neighbors , ” alla franga “ magazines ,  newspapers , TV – watching  – almost every single aspect that had provided the ladies some news about the world outside their doorstep had to  be banned . . .
  • how the ” reputation ” of the girl was more important than addressing the abuse the girl had suffered . . . Everything else should be swept under the carpet . . .
  • how her being a prostitute , seemed to imply that there is no need for sympathy in the way she met her end ;  how , even the youngsters , had been taught to view her as a ” fallen ” woman who had no  claim to their  pity / sympathy but only deserved all the  scorn and revulsion one could muster .
  • how Leila had to deal with every random ” righteous ” man ‘ s ire as she is seen as a blot on the society . . . Finally , she had to die in the hands of one such man who had taken it upon himself ” to turn whores into angels ” .

There is  no forced inclusion of plot elements to illustrate these themes  – the story rolls seamlessly .  The author has tried out some new analogies which are interesting .

What is the story of Tequila Leila , the prostitute whose body was found in a dustbin in Istanbul ? What are the friends ‘ stories and the stories behind some of the nicknames ? 

Body 

Now , having been forced to face the society ‘ s apathy and worse still ,  the judgmental opinions , they decide to give their friend a decent funeral . Normally , people like Leila ‘ s and her friends will be put up in the Cemetery of the Companionless when they died . The fact that Leila had friends who were ready to give her a proper funeral did not matter to the state – when a body is unclaimed or refused by the family , the person is buried in the ” Cemetery of the Companionless ” in Kilyos , no more questions asked . . .

So , the five friends make a rash decision to dig out Leila from her grave in the cemetery at night . . . They go about muddling in the Scooby – Doo gang style . . . [ perhaps this parallel is due to Scooby Doo  being in the news very often , these last few days . . . ]

What happened to their mission ? Was it successful or not ? 

Soul

Finally , Leila ‘ s soul gets free and makes an acquaintance she had long wanted to . . . Who is it ??

Summing it all up –

To sum it up , the writing & the story has the reader turning the pages fast . . . With the life story of a prostitute , the writer has had the space to pack several segments which mirror the society ‘ s attitude to the people on the fringes and it ‘ s misogynistic tendencies and she has done a commendable job . . .

In the backdrop of the characters ‘ lives , history is always in the making – the construction of the Bosphorous bridge , the massacre in Istanbul on International Workers ‘ Day ( 1997 ) . . . Sometimes , characters are present in the moment when events , which had made to the history books since then , were being enacted – often without them realizing it . Of course , we all are or will be . . .

Perhaps , the midnight grave digging and all that drama , brought this book down  to sit with all other populist contemporary fiction in the bookshelves . . . With only the first section , it would have been in a league of its own . . .

Still , I hope the questions might have sufficiently intrigued you  to add this book to your TBR . . .Yes , I would recommend this book . . . I only wish that Elif had known when to stop writing . . .

If you have already read the book , tell me your thoughts about the book in the comments section below . . . Is there something in the post you disagree with ? Feel free to write about it as well in the comments section . . .

Until the next review then . . .