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Culture Watch

In this issue:


The prolific Canadian Margaret Atwood--she has more than 25 books to her credit--is at the top of her game in The Blind Assassin.  And what a good game it is. 

Mother, daughter and granddaughter are locked in fierce emotional conflict in An Empire of Women


The woman scientist of Fission struggles with a destructive illness and with a ghost from the past who holds the clue to the future. 


A Woman Regains Her Tongue

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
(Doubleday; $26; 521 pages)

Just as a juggler tosses an array of objects into the air--balls, hats, axes, knives--combining them into a single, dazzling display, Canadian author Margaret Atwood has taken seemingly disparate elements and created a brilliant, spellbinding novel that is one of
the year's best books and the winner of this year's Booker Prize. In succeeding chapters and in different styles, she assembles her characters, and with the delicacy and sureness that her readers have come to expect puts them in motion to form a dazzling, intricate design with a historical and moral center. 

"The Blind Assassin" moves along several seemingly separate paths, and part of the pleasure is discovering their intersection. Atwood introduces us to a woman in her 80s, hurrying against time to complete a memoir, beginning with her sister's tragic death when the car she is driving plunges into a river. And we also meet a mysterious young woman who slips away in the afternoons to meet her lover--a man on the run-- in a secluded section of a park, in a borrowed apartment or amid the squalor of cheap rented rooms. Between bouts of passion, he invents for her a fictional fantasy about a parallel universe where the innocent young are treated with unimaginable cruelty. 

The older memoir writer is Iris Chase Griffen and her sister, Laura Chase, had deliberately driven off the bridge. It is ruled an accident, but Iris knows better. And she knows worse. In old age now, she is compelled to write about Laura and herself, looping
back into ancient family lore and leaping decades to uncover guilt, betrayal and the truth, no matter how brutal it might be. The sisters' grandfather was the wealthy founder of a button factory in the river town of Port Ticonderoga, Ontario, and the two girls grow up isolated in the family mansion named, in more hopeful times, Avilion. With his two brothers, their father goes off to fight in World War I. Only he survives, but is seriously wounded and returns a shattered and rageful man. The girls' mother dies in childbirth, and Iris and Laura, cleaving to one another like lonely orphans, come to adolescence and womanhood under the watchful eye of a kind housekeeper. 

Laura, a gentle and imaginative girl, sees life with the simple and terrible clarity of a child, while Iris, the older sister, is the practical one. Their father takes charge of the factory and strives to keep it going and townspeople employed, but the Depression and social upheaval of the times defeat him. During a bitter strike, the factory is set afire, and suspicion falls on Alex Thomas, a young stranger in the town who had been befriended by Laura. Together Laura and Iris hide him in the attic at Avilion until things settled down and he can board a train to get out of town. 

With the family's fortune ebbing away, Iris's father arranges for her to be married  to a well-to-do Toronto merchant and ambitious politician named Richard Griffen.  At 19, Iris naively accepts her sacrificial role to protect the family, especially Laura. Though
the marriage is doomed, Iris gradually grows in strength and is clever enough to handle herself with Richard, his overbearing sister Winifred and the social circles in which they move.
After her death, Laura's posthumous book is published, turning Laura into an adored Plath-like heroine. The book is titled "The Blind Assassin" and revolves around the illicit affair of the afternoon lovers and the science-fiction stories the man makes up to entertain the woman. He invents a distant planet where blind slave children weave carpets for their masters. They then are forced into brothels, but some of the boys are so skilled with their fingers, so quiet in their movements, and so sensitive with their hearing that they become hired assassins. 

This civilization--if one can call it that--also demands the periodical sacrifice of a virgin, and because the selected maiden's anguished cries would be unsettling, the tradition is to cut off her tongue while she is still young. Circumstances bring the blind youth and the condemned mute girl together and, in a tender moment, he runs his fingers along her body. "Touch came before sight,'' the narrator explains, "before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth. This is  how the girl who couldn't speak and the man who couldn't see fell in love.'' 

 As a girl, Iris had been the watcher, the observer, but experience and necessity give her a voice. Through the changing seasons, she writes with urgency to recall the past and set the record straight, describing with the tartness of an opinionated octogenarian,  the changes she has witnessed --not all of them to the good, in her view--and observing in detail her own physical decline. In a mirror, she sees that she is older, 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.'' When she goes for a walk and falls she is grimly furious: "Just when you could use an arm or a leg, suddenly the body has other things to do. It falters, it buckles under you; it melts away as if made of snow, leaving nothing much. Two lumps of coal, an old hat, a grin made of pebbles. The bones dry sticks, easily broken…Inside our heads we carry ourselves perfected.''  Atwood juxtaposes Iris' awareness and resentment of the body's betrayal with her younger relish of her body. 

The distressing thought of marrying Griffen had been tempered by the consolation that she will finally have new, modish clothes. As his wife, she remembers,  "I spent a lot of time changing my costumes. Diddling with straps, with buckles, with the tilt of hats, the seams on stockings…Filing my nails, soaking my feet. Yanking out hairs or shaving them off; it was necessary to be sleek, devoid of bristles. A topography like wet clay, a surface the hands would glide over.'' Yes, but whose hands? Atwood teases us with the answer. 

Ultimately, a monstrous betrayal divides the sisters, and it is only after her death that Iris comes face to face with the horror behind Laura's death and her own complicity. Instead of more pretense and avoidance, Iris finds the energy to make a new life. It is not without heartbreak and loss, but at least it is new. And it is hers. 

A writer of subtlety and nuance, Atwood  lets the reader into her characters' hearts and  reminds of the significance of the small, telling relics from a time past--in this case, the hand-tinted photographs that once were so popular. She describes them this way: "The colours never came out clear, the way they would on a piece of white paper: there was a misty look to them, as if they were seen through cheesecloth. They didn't make the people seem more real; rather they became ultra-real; citizens of an old half-country, lurid yet muted, where realism was beside the point.''

It is Atwood's genius that she sees her characters in a harsher light, where hard edges and deep shadows are exposed, and in fact, where reality is precisely the point. 
Three's a Crowd

An Empire of Women by Karen Shepard
(Putnam; $24.95; 262 pages)

More divides the three women of Karen Shepard's novel than just generations. There's mutual distrust, a dark, shared history, and they are obsessed with one another. And for good reason: they are members of one small family of females. Norman Rockwell characters they are not. The grandmother is Celine Arneaux,  half-Chinese and half-French, a legendary photographer just about to turn 75. Sumin, the daughter fathered by a Chinese painter  Celine met when he was visiting New York, deeply resents and fears her formidable mother. Sumin's daughter is Cameron, now in her 30s and beautiful in a way that Sumin never was. She is the daughter of a Japanese man Sumin met one summer and is still famous as the subject of a scandalous series of photographs Celine made of her when she was a child.

Sumin and Cameron are driving to a Virginia country house to celebrate the approaching birthdays of Cameron and Celine. Accompanying them is Alice, a six-year-old  Chinese girl. Alice's mother is the best friend of Cameron, who is the child's guardian now that her mother's visa has expired and she has had to return to China. They are to be joined by Celine, flying from her home in Paris, and Grady, a journalist and the older lover of Sumin. Celine, who detests interviews, has agreed to allow him to interview her for a magazine. Once everyone has arrived, the games begin, and the old bottled-up resentments are uncorked and poured out. The taste is rancid. The three women, as they have always have, jostle for control, shift alliances, trade accusations and plot to achieve their own ends and let the means be damned. But after all, isn't that what happens in any empire? 

While the empire is one of women, it is, more importantly, the imperial precinct of mothers and daughters. Celine is suffused with thoughts of her own mother, a gentle Chinese woman transplanted, not entirely happily, to France. Later, she returned to China and eventually became a victim of the Cultural Revolution. Sumin is the one in the middle, always feeling humiliated and rejected by her mother  and helpless before her daughter. 

When Cameron goes to Sumin with a plea for her help in winning Celine's financial support for the plan to keep Alice, Cam begins to cry. Sumin finds that she reacts in the old way she always had when her daughter asked for help.  Writes Shepard, "It was the thing she wanted most and the thing she couldn't stand wanting. So it had always been met with a shutting down. Cam had once described it as a disappearing act.''

The long struggle between the three reaches the breaking point because of Alice, whom Cameron has decided to raise, even though Alice longs to be re-united with her mother. For their own reasons, both Celine and Sumin want Alice for themselves, "the child's best interest'' is the rationale.  It is a repeat of the familiar conflict, when Celine gained young Cameron's affection and  eclipsed Sumin. Each of the three women knows each other's strengths and weakness, and they draw the battle lines. But Alice is not a pliant child without ideas of her own. She is a sturdy and independent spirit with a fierce determination that serves as her protection. Cam and Sumin join forces, using as the weapon to control Celine a guilty secret that she harbors. They will use it as blackmail and the deadly triangle will be shattered. 

A Chinese-American herself, author Shepard fashions the Asian-American women in "An Empire of Women" with a depth of understanding, while delineating the strains within a family and the ties that--in both meanings of the word--bind. The writing is spare, swift, and straight to the point. Celine is at the center of the conflict and much of what we know about her past, her motives, her pragmatic --or one could say heartless-- rationalizing comes through the interior monologues Shepard provides for her. One example: "So when people insisted that I'd used Cam, I said: with imaginative intent. Sumin's uses were quite different. And Cam? She thinks that she and Alice are meant for each other, that they were born to help each other. But when she speaks of her, it's in terms of what the girl can do for her. There's no escaping the selfishness of motherhood.''  A devastating comment, and one that is not easily shrugged off. It isn't easy to like Celine, but Shepard demands that we accept her--and the other women in this small empire--on her own terms. And we do. 

And Consider This

Fission by Helga Konigsdorf
(Translated by Susan H. Gillespie; Northwestern University Press; $18.95; 161 pages)

A scientist, her life and career blighted by chronic, debilitating illness, is starting to see a ghost. Her medicine is apparently conjuring up the apparition, but the unexpected visitations--are they hallucinations?-- cause the unnamed narrator of this remarkable book to look back over her life and re-examine personal choices and the disturbing results modern science has handed us. 

"Fission" is grounded in fact. The ghost is the physicist Lise Meitner. She was key to the discovery of uranium fission, which resulted eventually in the nuclear bomb. A Jew, she fled Germany and though she did not share  as she should have the Nobel Prize for the discovery, she received many other scientific awards and continued to work in her field until she died in 1968. 

Author Helga Konigsdorf grew up in the former East Germany and now has Parkinson's disease. She was a professor of physics and mathematics and, like the narrator, has experienced the ways illness and pain shrink the possibilities and dimensions of life. In an introspective poetic meditation, she finds the connection between Meitner's efforts to prevail against all obstacles to pursue science. She reviews her own decisions, questions, disagrees and argues with Meitner, and in the end achieves some peace by acknowledging that the purpose of life is simply in living it. "I have been given a message,'' she  realizes , and will pass it on so that part of it will join with that of others to form a new message even after she has been forgotten. "We are immortal as long as continuity is vouchsafed to this life.'' This small, powerful book quietly affirms human existence in the face of suffering.

  2000 Emily Mitchell for SeniorWomenWeb

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