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“Reading Historical Novels” – The first in a series of articles by Rebecca Mascull

Posted on: 30/04/2014 with tags: author blog, Booker Prize, historical novels, Margaret Atwood, reading, Rebecca Mascull, The Blind Assassin, The Visitors, writing

THE BLIND ASSASSIN by Margaret Atwood

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Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. The bridge was being repaired: she went right through the Danger sign. The car fell a hundred feet into the ravine, smashing through the treetops feathery with new leaves, then burst into flames and rolled down into the shallow creek at the bottom. Chunks of the bridge fell on top of it. Nothing much was left of her but charred smithereens.

   I was informed of the accident by a policeman: the car was mine, and they’d traced the licence. His tone was respectful: no doubt he recognized Richard’s name. He said the tires may have caught on a streetcar track or the brakes may have failed, but he also felt bound to inform me that two witnesses – a retired lawyer and a bank teller, dependable people – had claimed to have seen the whole thing. They’d said Laura had turned the car sharply and deliberately, and had plunged off the bridge with no more fuss than stepping off a curb. They’d noticed her hands on the wheel because of the white gloves she’d been wearing.

   It wasn’t the brakes, I thought. She had her reasons. Not that they were ever the same as anybody else’s reasons. She was completely ruthless in that way.

Our first experience of the world of this novel is one of death: a car is driven off a bridge by the narrator’s sister. Not a peaceful death; nothing comforting here. It is a violent and unnatural death, characterised by intense damage. In fact, this theme recurs throughout the opening and many of the images are violent and shocking: ‘fatal’, ‘smashing’, ‘charred smithereens’, ‘burst into flames’, ‘Chunks of the bridge fell on top of it’, ‘plunged off’, ‘the plummet’. Even the bridge itself has already been damaged – ‘The bridge was being repaired’. Atwood has said, ‘Some people in a novel … will die’, and here she wastes no time in that respect. In fact, there are many deaths to come in this novel: righteous and unrighteous, sad and indifferent, peaceful and violent. And there are survivors of damage, too. This novel tells us a lot about what it is like to live through the wreckage of our lives, and go on. Indeed, the fifth word of the novel is ‘war’, and there will be wars aplenty in this story, real ones and fictional ones, as well as internal, psychological battles and class warfare. The mention of the war presents some useful social context, yet it also sets us up for this tale about conflict and destruction.

The way this opening death is described provides us with an insight into the relationship of the narrator to her sister. Remember this narrator is talking about her own sister’s death, and yet she does not use omission or euphemism to soften the blow. She reports it exactly how it would have happened – and this tells us something about the relationship between the two sisters, that perhaps it was not a happy one. The narrator confirms this later when she comments on her sister’s character: ‘She was completely ruthless in that way’. This doesn’t sound like a compliment to her deceased sister, rather an honest and perhaps even bitter, criticism. Thus already we are set up for a troubled bond between two sisters, a theme of the difficulty of relationships that echoes throughout the book, with bad marriages, bad parents and opposition within families. And not only within families; this theme extends to the society beyond. Consider the words of the policeman who tells the narrator about her sister’s death: he relies on the evidence of two witnesses – ‘a retired lawyer and a bank teller’ – who are characterised through their jobs as being ‘dependable people’. This implies that there might be certain professions that would render the individual as undependable and unreliable as a witness. There is also evidence of social class in the way the policeman speaks to the narrator: ‘His tone was respectful: no doubt he recognised Richard’s name’. Though we are told the car belongs to the narrator, the suggestion here is that she is married to an important man, someone who garners respect from the local police and perhaps society as a whole. The narrator is also being defined in relation to her husband, and thus not as an individual in her own right. These themes of the position of women and the battle between the classes will recur significantly throughout the novel, where Atwood analyses the issue of power – who has it and who doesn’t, and how our lives are restricted by our access to power, and also how we can subvert and escape its stranglehold.

Lastly and most subtly, we find a theme which is perhaps the most important to me and tells us something profound about the very act of reading a novel, of reading anything for that matter, and certainly of the process of telling stories and listening to them. The narrator who is telling us this story is in fact not even present at the very event she describes. She was not there. She gives us the third-hand account of someone else who was not there – the policeman – who reports on two further accounts of people who saw it happen, but were not in the car. Indeed, the only person who really knows what happened on that bridge is dead, and not merely passed away, but ‘charred to smithereens’. The truth went careering into that ravine with the car and its driver and was burnt to cinders. All we can do is wonder. Throughout the novel, we are presented with various versions of reality: the narrator’s own (‘It wasn’t the brakes, I thought’), newspaper reports, magazine articles, bulletins, scribblings in exercise books, science fiction stories and photographs. As readers we stand outside these and have to make sense of them; we have to read the clues (like the bridge’s ‘Danger sign’) and decide for ourselves what the truth is. And yet we are reading a work of fiction. And that is the magic of novels, especially such a complex and clever one as this, which plays with time, reality, perception and truth and yet leads us steadily through its world and draws us in through a compelling opening and a central mystery which we are bound to follow to its end.

Rebecca Mascull’s debut novel, THE VISITORS, is available now in hardcover and as an eBook from Hodder & Stoughton. Visit Rebecca’s website here, follow her on Twitter and on Facebook for more information.

Amy Dolman

Post author: Amy Dolman

Amy is responsible for the smooth running of the H for History website, and enjoys reading history-based fantasy. She also like to photograph sites of historical interest in her spare time with a cup of bovril and a pork pie for company. Favourite period of history: Ancient; Favourite historical read: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave; Upcoming book i'm most looking forward to: Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick

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