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Margaret Atwood Creates a Chinese Box of Interlocking Tales

October 15, 2000|ROCHELLE O'GORMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The Blind Assassin" is a novel of avarice and betrayal, survival and revenge. It is a tale of two sisters told with five plot strands. It is also Margaret Atwood's most ambitious novel. (Bantam Doubleday Dell Audio; unabridged fiction; 11 cassettes; 18 hours; $39.95; read by Margot Dionne.)

Much of the story is told as a memoir being written by Iris Chase Griffen, an 83-year-old lady unburdening herself of family secrets she hopes are discovered upon her demise. At the same time, Iris narrates the contemporary details of her life, often with a hilariously acerbic wit. There is a novel-within-the-novel that contains two plot lines: One involving the romance between a hunted political agitator and his young socialite lover. The other details a wild science-fiction yarn titled "The Blind Assassin" that is spun by the political dissident for his paramour's pleasure. Finally, there are newspaper clippings describing social events and family announcements.

At first it is a little difficult to grasp the jumps from one plot to another while listening, though it does not take long to catch on. Atwood is one of Canada's most prolific and talented authors, and this is one of her more intriguing novels, so it is worth the effort. Her descriptions are vivid and evocative, her humor bitingly sharp. The plot is nothing less than enthralling. Her social commentary is all-encompassing and covers subjects as varied as graffiti on bathroom walls and Canada's Red scare. You may find yourself racing to quickly drop the next tape into the player.

Atwood deftly ties up the subplots involving one sister who died too young and one who was left alive and burdened by the truth. The one complaint is that she had too many endings, the last of which drains some of tale's emotional impact.

Actress Margot Dionne has a low, smoky voice. It is both sexy and strong and very easy on the ears. She lowers it even more and slows the pace to bring out the arrogance of Iris' domineering and haughty sister-in-law. The loyal family retainer, Reenie, and her daughter Myra speak in sharper tones with flatter vowels. They sound very Canadian and more working class than the socialites populating much of the story.

Dionne brings us through this lengthy novel without a misstep, extracting Atwood's droll humor, enhancing characters' icy denials and eliciting the story's potent emotions.

*

Andrei Makine is a Russian-born novelist who defected to France in 1987 and whose previous novel, "Dreams of My Russian Summer," won both the Goncourt and Medicis prizes in France. His latest English translation, "Once Upon the River Love," is a tale of discovery amid the isolation of a closed and stifling world. (Books on Tape; unabridged fiction; five cassettes; seven hours and 30 minutes; $24.95; read by Geoffrey Howard; translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan.)

Attractive Alyosha, maimed Utkin and the older, brasher Samurai are three teenagers living in the frozen world of the Siberian steppes in the mid-1970s. It is a world of spiritual meagerness and silent despair. It is a village in which "people feel condemned to this natural beauty and to the suffering it conceals."

When the boys see a film starring French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, their horizons broaden and their limits shatter. In fact, they trek to the cinema 17 times, 20 miles each way, as they turn Belmondo into a larger-than-life hero figure. The result for these boys is explosive. Each attaches an identity to Belmondo as a reflection of his own personality. Samurai sees a fighter, Alyosha a lover and Utkin a poet.

The novel is a Bildungsroman, as it deals chiefly with the early development of these characters. However, Makine frames the novel with short sections briefly describing their adult lives.

The prose is quite beautiful and often sensual, but one never warms to the boys, who always seem as remote as their snowy locale. As Makine's tale is also somewhat dense, it is perhaps best read, leaving one the time to linger and reread.

Narrator Geoffrey Howard brings little warmth to the fiction. He is quite polished and his diction is without fault. However, his delivery is reserved. He reads without the embellishment of a performance, which is fine, except that he sounds too reserved and almost staccato until one becomes accustomed to him.

This is a novel that requires concentration. A reader with more vocal flexibility could have drawn us in and enhanced the emotional subtext. It must be said that the production is very listener-friendly. At the onset of the audio, a glossary of Russian terms is read, followed by a brief biography of Makine.

*

Rochelle O'Gorman reviews audio books every other week. Next week: Dick Lochte on mystery books.

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