August 2011 Reading: The Blind Assassin, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Norwegian Wood

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (2000)
I recently met up with a university friend who asked what I was reading at the moment.  When I told him I was reading Margaret Atwood (the subject of my final year dissertation) he raised an eyebrow in disbelief.  “Still?”
It’s true: in many ways, I haven’t moved on from my twenty year old self: I still drink too much at parties, live mostly off my overdraft, refuse to dress like an adult (see recent purchase of Pinocchio necklace) and am about to enter once more into full time studenthood.  And yes, I’m still reading Margaret Atwood.  Yet oddly enough, my fascination with her work isn’t based on pure enjoyment – which is probably why I felt able to write a critical dissertation on her, now I come to think of it.  What interests me about Atwood is the sense of the craft of writing, the emphasis on how a novel is put together rather than the story that is being told.  In The Blind Assassin, the novel-within-a-novel-within-a-novel structure repeatedly draws attention to the story as narrative, as does the fact that we have an unreliable first person narrator.  I find this really interesting, but it also has the effect of distancing us from the characters.  Iris Chase, the elderly narrator of the story, which revolves around her sister Laura’s death, often sounds suspiciously like Atwood herself:
            “The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read […] You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand, you must see your left hand erasing it.”
This could have been taken from Atwood’s non-fiction work on writing, Negotiating with the Dead (which I will be reviewing soon).
The playful dabbling with genres such as science fiction provides some welcome light relief, as does Iris’s occasional comic asides, such as her scepticism of a friend’s opinion: “she reads a lot of magazines at the hairdressers.”  The use of newspaper extracts to advance the plot seems a little outdated and forced, though they do offer an insight into the kind of society that the Chase sisters are expected to try and be a part of.
Although this novel isn’t one of my favourites, I still believe that Atwood is one of the most daring and courageous writers around, and her conviction in what she writes is both intimidating and awe-inspiring.  So JJ, ask me what I’m reading in ten years, and there’s a good chance my answer will be the same.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2005)
I’m not generally a fan of Swedish things (ok, by that I mean I just don’t like Ikea), but a spate of reportedly excellent Swedish crime dramas on TV, and the huge success of Larsson’s Millenium trilogy mean that I can no longer ignore the country that brought us The Evil One-Way System Store.  So, with my typical reluctance to embrace anything anyone else likes, I picked up the book originally titled ‘Men Who Hate Women.’
And, in this novel, oh boy do they ever.  I hadn’t expected the book to be so dark.  However, this is far from your average thriller, and the violence is rarely played for mere shock factor.  The main characters, journalist Mikael Blomkvist and more-than-a-little-bit-messed-up security specialist Lisbeth Salander, are two of the most complex and intriguing characters I’ve come across in my recent reading.  Nothing about them is conventional or two-dimensional, the usual pitfalls of ‘characters who solve crimes’.  The plot itself is intriguing enough to sustain interest, though Larsson wisely resists the urge to do a Dan Brown and pack in as many ridiculous cliff hangers as possible.  I did struggle to get into the story, as a large portion of the start of the book is about setting the scene (it might not help that much of that ‘scene’ revolves around the world of Swedish finance, not exactly my specialist subject), but once it took off, I’ll admit, I was hooked.  I will definitely be reading the sequels, and I may even have to rethink my furniture-based prejudices.
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (1987)
Although I’m a recent Murakami convert/fanatic, I was a bit wary of reading Norwegian Wood after hearing a less-than-flattering critique of the recent film version from my friend JJ (who is getting quite a bit of press in this blog entry).  I believe his exact words were: “Two hours of a woman in a wood screaming about how she can’t get wet.”
Fortunately, the novel offers something more than this.  The narrator, Toru, is one of Murakami’s sanest characters, and the plot one of his most realistic.  The book tells the story of Toru’s relationship with two women: his first, unrequited love, Naoko (she of the screaming) and the girl he meets at university, the much more likeable (in my opinion) Midori.  Both girls slide up and down a scale of craziness, partly connected with certain traumatic events in their past, and partly, one assumes, because Murakami rightly believes that there’s no such thing as normal.  Murakami writes the female characters extremely well, and draws a pleasing contrast between the fragile Naoko, who withdraws to a private clinic in the mountains to try and recover, and the bold, brash Midori, who brazens out life in the real world even while things seem to fall apart around her.  Naoko’s friend Reiko is another believable and well-drawn character, with her own shocking demons to deal with.  Toru is also a sympathetic character, not without his weaknesses, but self-aware enough to try and do the right thing.
A lot of contemporary fiction focuses on the isolated individual, on self-absorbed characters failing to communicate.  One of the things I like most about Murakami’s writing, especially in Norwegian Wood, is the emphasis he places on empathy, on our efforts to help and understand those that we care about.  The narrator’s relationships with the women in his life and the friendship between Naoko and Reiko offer a more constructive, though never saccharine, view of life.