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The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood <em>Bloomsbury, 521pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0747549370

Margaret Atwood's newest, most intricately plotted book contains three novels nested inside each other, and all three deal with the sacrifice of virgins. The frame narrative, a story of Toronto society marriage in the Depression, is told in retrospect by Iris Chase Griffen. The Blind Assassin, the posthumous novel-within-the-novel of two illicit lovers, by Iris's suicidal sister Laura, is hard-boiled and stylised. The third novel is a pulp science-fiction story, also called The Blind Assassin, which the unnamed lovers tell each other between sexual bouts. It explores the extraterrestrial world of Zycron, the home of the Lizard Men and the Peach Women; it is cruel, exotic and cynical.

Growing up in the stifling Toronto bourgeoisie between the wars, Iris is conditioned to prepare for the sacrifice of her ambition, her body and her emotions. The housekeeper, Reenie, warns of the violent dangers awaiting young maidens who try to escape on their own from "dirty-minded men". In Iris's mind, the victim is always speechless and helpless to save herself: "The girl or woman would always be inert . . . She would be magically deprived of the ability to scream or move. She would be transfixed, she would be paralysed." Iris sees her adolescence as a kind of paralysis, too.

On honeymoon, having been pressured to marry a wealthy older businessman in order to help her father pay off his debts, Iris realises that "my lack of enjoyment - my distaste, my suffering even - would be considered normal and even desirable by my husband". She bitterly reflects: "My job was to open my legs and shut my mouth." Similarly, in the anonymous lovers' fantasy world of Zycron, young virgins about to be sacrificed have their tongues cut out so that they cannot protest. And in Laura's interpolated novel, the married woman has to put up with her lover's brutality or risk her own destruction.

In many respects, Atwood's The Blind Assassin recalls her most celebrated novel, The Handmaid's Tale, turned inside out. The female narrator is obsessed with memory and truth, but is wildly unreliable and secretive. Atwood employs a gothic architecture of basements and attics, and a similarly gothic decor of trunks, torn photographs and elaborate costume. Her heroines are sacrificial victims legitimised by religion, myth and fairy tale; but this time, a man - the handsome young left-wing revolutionary, Alex Thomas - is the captive, hidden in the attic by the two sisters after a violent strike causes a foreman's death.

The state of female erotic thraldom, traditional in both fairy tale and pornography, is a favourite theme of Atwood's. But for her, as opposed to Angela Carter, with whom she has many affinities, the male object of fascination scarcely seems to matter. Alex in The Blind Assassin and Nick in The Handmaid's Tale are shadowy catalysts who release the woman, awakening her to her own condition.

Iris and Laura are both exceptionally sensual, especially with regard to smells and textures. They are both fascinated by Coleridge's "Kubla Khan", and Iris dreams of dressing as the Abyssinian maiden at the Xanadu-themed society ball in Toronto in 1935. Iris's astonishing dreams reveal both her aggression and her submissiveness; she dreams that her legs are covered with hair, growing fur. Like Angela Carter's wolf-girls, Iris finds her inner wolf in erotic obsession.

Atwood's tone of hostility towards men and marriage, her elaborate, tricky plot and her languorous meditations on language have irritated some of her critics. One complained that he was fed up with her wordplay and that the novel should have been much shorter. In the New Yorker, John Updike objected that the men in the novel were both mysterious and unlovable; the review was illustrated with a drawing of Atwood looking like an evil Golda Meir.

With every year and every novel, Atwood's subjects get bigger, and, to some men, she seems possessed by a demonic need to get it all down on paper. For me, however, her new novel is so rich thematically and so convincing psychologically, that I was willing to read even the parts about the Lizard Men.

The Blind Assassin may indeed prove to be that most elusive of literary unicorns: the woman's novel.

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