I must have read this for school as a kid. I have definitely read it a very long time ago and I can't imagine I would have done so off my own back.
AnI must have read this for school as a kid. I have definitely read it a very long time ago and I can't imagine I would have done so off my own back.
Anyway. It is a fantastic piece of work, widely acknowledged to be one of the best Russian short stories ever written, if not The Best. I would highly recommend it whether you are already a lover of Russian literature or are just starting to explore it. The idea is simple enough, that every person, no matter how unattractive and inconsequential, deserves some compassion and understanding. Yet there is so much in the measly 50 odd pages of this story. Comedy, tragedy, social satire and even a ghost story. It is one of the very very few books which has managed to make me laugh and cry. The influence that it had on later writers such as Dostoyevsky (who famously stated that "We all come out of Gogol's Overcoat"), Turgenev, Tolstoy, Kafka and many others is undeniable.
It is a story about a "small person", a poor civil cervant who does not have any outstanding abilities, is not clever or ambitious, who is made fun of by his co-workers, but who is, essentially, harmless and who enjoys his mindless repetitive work. And it is a story about the stark impersonal casual cruelty with which the world treats such a person, about "...how much inhumanity there is in man, how much savage coarseness is concealed beneath refined, cultured, worldly civility...".
Have you ever done one of those big 5000+ piece jigsaw puzzles, ones that can take weeks to complete? When we were younger, my sister used to love theHave you ever done one of those big 5000+ piece jigsaw puzzles, ones that can take weeks to complete? When we were younger, my sister used to love them and I inevitably got suckered into helping her, on occasion. It was engrossing but not straight away. It was a bit frustrating and tedious to begin with, and then all of a sudden you'd find that several hours have passed and you've forgotten to eat but you can't stop, you just need to find that one next piece. This is what the experience of reading this book reminded me of. Completing a jigsaw puzzle, except without the helpful picture that is usually provided with a jigsaw to tell you where the various pieces are supposed to fit, so instead you see the picture emerging very slowly bit by bit and you are not quite sure how the various pieces fit together until the very end.
I was a bit apprehensive about the structure to begin with. All this book within a book within a book nonsense just sounded too convoluted and I didn't expect to enjoy the experience. There are, in fact, at least 5 different narrative strands interwoven in this book. There is the story of Iris and Laura Chase, two sisters growing up at the beginning of the 20th century between the two world wars as told by 83 year old Iris. Then there are descriptions of Iris' present life. I was quite surprised by those. I didn't expect to enjoy descriptions of day to day goings on of an old woman, attempting to do laundry, walking to the cemetery and the doughnut shop and reading the scribbles on the walls of public lavatories, yet I did end up enjoying them a great deal because those passages are so dry, so self-deprecatingly hilarious and reveal so much about Iris as a person. There are also extracts from Laura Chase's novel "The Blind Assassin", published posthumously and describing an affair between two lovers meeting in secret and, within that novel, the lurid fantasy/science-fiction story set on planet Zycron, told by the hero to the heroine, of a blind assassin and a mute sacrificial virgin who fall in love. And finally, there are extracts from obituaries and various other newspaper articles concerning the newsworthy events in Iris' life.
I am still ambivalent about whether this complicated structure works better than a more simple straightforward narrative would have. I did find the story a bit too fractured at times but, perhaps, this is a story that can only be told in this way. Perhaps, that's what gives it its punch. We essentially end at about the same place we start. The narrative is circular and the circle is used as a symbol:
"She’s the round O, the zero at the bone. A space that defines itself by not being there at all. That’s why they can’t reach her, lay a finger on her. That’s why they can’t pin anything on her. She has such a good smile, but she doesn’t stand behind it."
The story that Iris tells is the circle of rock and mountains that she imagines surrounding her, the round dome of the fake sky that suffocates her.
The writing is exquisite. I truly believe that this may well be the most beautifully written book I have read, ever. Atwood has an amazing ability to say something really profound in very few words. This is not a book to be raced through just to find out what happens. Don't expect to be able to finish it quickly, you need a bit of patience, time to pause and to think to truly appreciate this book. There were so many passages that I read and re-read so many times just for the sheer pleasure of reading them. And every so often you come across a paragraph that is so startlingly beautiful, it is almost painful.
"Farewells can be shattering, but returns are surely worse. Solid flesh can never live up to the bright shadow cast by its absence. Time and distance blur the edges; then suddenly the beloved has arrived, and it’s noon with its merciless light, and every spot and pore and wrinkle and bristle stands clear."
"There’s a lipstick heart on the cement, surrounding four initials. An L connects them: L for Loves. Only those concerned would know whose initials they are—that they’ve been here, that they’ve done this. Proclaiming love, withholding the particulars. Outside the heart, four other letters, like the four points of the compass:
F U C K
The word torn apart, splayed open: the implacable topography of sex."
"When I look in the mirror I see an old woman; or not old, because nobody is allowed to be old any more. Older, then. Sometimes I see an older woman who might look like the grandmother I never knew, or like my own mother, if she’d managed to reach this age. But sometimes I see instead the young girl’s face I once spent so much time rearranging and deploring, drowned and floating just beneath my present face, which seems—especially in the afternoons, with the light on a slant—so loose and transparent I could peel it off like a stocking."
"The French are connoisseurs of sadness, they know all the kinds. This is why they have bidets."
"When you're young, you think everything you do is disposable. You move from now to now, crumpling time up in your hands, tossing it away. You're your own speeding car. You think you can get rid of things, and people too - leave them behind. You don't yet know about the habit they have, of coming back."
I could go on and on and on.
And then there was Iris. She is so drily amusing and snarky, just the kind of character I usually love. Yet she is so flawed and frustrating at the same time. She seems spineless, she accepts and crumbles. There is no resistance, no spine. Yet, perhaps, this is really a strength rather than a weakness. The strength of grass which bends to the wind and survives where trees are uprooted and destroyed by the hurricane. Does s/he who survives the longest win? Can subsequent actions truly atone for choices and mistakes made? I wonder whether my inability to forgive Iris has to do with the fact that I saw too much of myself in her or the opposite. I don't know. I was never faced with her choices. I would like to think that I would have had the backbone to stand up not just for the people I love but for myself and my own dignity. But would I really? I have pretty much always done what has been expected of me and I do quite often choose the path of least resistance. The only difference is that I grew up in a different time and environment and things that were and are expected of me are quite different to those that were expected of Iris and Laura. When the hero of the Blind Assassin, the novel written by Laura Chase, asks the heroine to leave her home (not quite with him but to wait for him) and she responds with "But I wouldn’t have any money… Where would I live? In some rented room, all by myself?", it is quite easy for me to despise her. But would my own response really have been any different given the same upbringing and social environment? In the end, I don't think Iris really needs our forgiveness. Atonement through the act of writing is not, in my view, what this book is about. It is much more complex than that.
Overall this was a very contemplative and melancholy read. Not easy or quick but very rewarding. A book to fall in love with, word by word and sentence by sentence. Beautifully written, with complex interesting characters, engaging plot and some interesting explorations of the writing process and the motivation behind setting pen to paper. Not for everyone, perhaps, but it is going straight to my favourites shelf. I intend to re-read it when I have a bit more time on my hands as I think it is one of those books that needs to be read more than once. I expect I may even enjoy the second reading more, as I already know what is going to happen and can appreciate the little clues and significant details much better. ...more
Thinking is bad for you. The heroine of this novel, Rae Blaise or Sunshine, as she is better known, finds this out the hard way after she drives out tThinking is bad for you. The heroine of this novel, Rae Blaise or Sunshine, as she is better known, finds this out the hard way after she drives out to the lake to have a think and avoid arguing with her mum. Because while there, she is kidnapped by a group of vampires, dressed in blood red silk and chained in a room with another vampire, Constantine. But clearly, Sunshine is a bright girl (I am still unsure exactly how old she is supposed to be, early twenties, I'd guess) and learns her lesson quickly and pretty much stops thinking from then on. At least enough for her latent powers to reveal themselves and take over her logical processes.
I am doing this all wrong, aren't I? Because, actually, I loved this book. I couldn't put it down. And even the fact that listening to Sunshine is like talking to someone with a severe case of ADD because she keeps diverting and sidetracking until you lose all sense of what she was talking about to begin with and the fact that the book was like the worst kind of tease, sucking you in, turning you on and dumping you with barely a hint of a resolution, no answers to most of the questions and no sequel in sight wouldn't put me off.
I liked Sunshine. Despite her ADD and obsession with baking (I hate cooking with a passion). She felt real. She was sometimes snarky, sometimes frustrating, sometimes puzzling but always interesting and complex and believable as a character.
I've never read any McKinley before but I new fairy tale retellings were usually her thing but that this wasn't quite her usual thing, being a gritty and dark urban tale about vampires. Yet I am not so sure. This is a dark vampire tale but with a healthy dose of fairy (tale) dust sprinkled all over it, I think, and some sunshine. It is a Beauty and the Beast story, which Sunshine tells to Constantine during their confinement and which, I hear, McKinley is a teeny bit obsessed with but it is not really a romance (damn it!).
Yes, Constantine is definitely the Beast of this piece. He is ugly and alien and he smells. No sparklingly brooding underwear models here. No sighing over anybody's eyes and beautiful chests. Yet Sunshine, and I along with her, grows to love him despite herself and the "resolution" to their relationship at the end, while it is incredibly frustrating in its unclarity, is also incredibly sweet (I did tell you this was a fairy tale, right?).
But back to the unclarity (and the biggest fattest BUT of this book). Questions. Questions, questions everywhere. Where did Sunshine's father and the entire Blaise family disappear to? What are the "bad spots"? Why does Sunshine's mum avoid her all the time and why did she leave her father? What precipitated the Voodoo Wars? Has the presense of supernatural beasties always been the reality of this world or have they just crawled out of the woodwork at some point? What is the Goddess of Pain? What is Mel? And so on and so forth. Answers are not forthcoming.
You know that scene in the middle where naked Sunshine lands on equally naked Constantine but, while he initially appears into this, he soon comes to his senses and won't put out and Sunshine is all frustrated with engorged labia and parts to match. Well, I swear McKinley put this in just to illustrate graphically how she was going to leave her readers at the end of this book. Coitus interruptus, are you bloody kidding me? I need the other two books (at least) in this series, which Mckinley is not writing.
I was going to take a star off for that but then, I know for a fact that I am now going to go read every single other book that McKinley has ever written and come back to this one over and over looking for that something that I have possibly missed but really just to spend some time with Con and Sunshine again, even if they are not doing anything new and Sunshine is mainly blathering on about her cinnamon rolls as big as her head. And if that doesn't make a book five star worthy, I don't know what does. ...more