This novel, winner of the Booker Prize in 2000, is quite simply, gorgeous. In elegant yet accessible prose, Atwood relates the compelling, intriguing and thought-provoking story of Iris and her younger sister Laura growing up isolated in small town, war-torn Canada in the early part of the 20th century. Intertwined is a story of unnamed lovers whose experiences and emotions alternatively match and juxtaposition the story of the sisters. A third story is laced in, a story set on a planet far, far way of a mute girl destined to be sacrificed for the glory of nothing and a blind assassin set to kill her.
Iris, the eldest, is the dominant character and for the most part the novel is told through her voice. Unsophisticated and humanly flawed, Iris struggles to make sense of the world around her while Laura remains vaguely drawn and a little ethereal. Their mother dies giving birth leaving the children to the care of their distant and disturbed father, Norval. Iris agrees to marry nouveau-riche Richard Chase in an attempt to save her father’s business and to protect her sister.
But Richard betrays Iris and Norval dies, leaving Iris, ill-prepared and unsupported, to look after her wayward sister. Thus is the scene is set for an intriguing mystery and a touching, devastating account of young – and lifelong – love. You’re just never sure whose love, until the very end.
The premise may sound complicated, but don’t be put off. Atwood guides the reader so well, so gently, that the action moves effortless between the nested narratives, leaving the reader riveted but not confused. Atwood’s prize winning novel is at once a masterpiece, a great read, a good mystery and by far the best book I’ve read so far this year.
Read and reviewed in 2006
© Jessica Mulley 2006, 2014