After taking an extended break from blogging, I’m back with a double review of one of my favorite authors. I honestly believe that Margaret Atwood could write in any genre, as these two novels are so different to each other. First, we have a page-turning dystopian thriller that is not The Handmaid’s Tale. The next review is a complex narrative labyrinth that touches on multiple genres. Although as different as night and day, both of these works demonstrate the full range of Atwood’s brilliance.
Oryx and Crake
Recently, I’ve realized that I have a passion for dystopian fiction. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because these stories connect so strongly to the present state of our world. Perhaps I just love the science fiction elements. Or it could be that I love going into an existential depression. Whatever the reason, I am going to applaud Atwood for creating an engrossing thriller that had me on the hook from the first page.
Oryx and Crake is the story of a man who calls himself “Snowman.” The survivor of a devastating apocalypse, he might possibly be the last pure human left. Surrounded by a bleak world filled with bizarre hybrid animals, Snowman fights for survival while also serving as a false prophet to a genetically-modified race known as the “Children of Crake.” Through flashbacks, we learn about Snowman’s life before the apocalypse when he was simply a normal man named Jimmy. As the book progresses, we learn about the events that led to the end of the human race.
Atwood throws her readers in headfirst with so many questions. The flashbacks are perfectly paced as answers come slowly rather than in a rush of exposition. The story becomes clear as Snowman reflects on his life as Jimmy when he had a genius friend named Crake and a mysterious lover named Oryx. These short trips into the past are alternated by Snowman’s life in this post-apocalyptic world where each day is a fight to survive. Some of the answers are given in a way that the reader has to work out fully what is happening. While some readers may be frustrated by this method, I loved how it was like solving a gigantic puzzle with only certain pieces.
What makes Oryx and Crake such a disturbing read is that I could easily imagine many of the book’s scientific breakthroughs as plausible. On one hand, this is a story about how the scientific community can become abusive in its power of creation. There are some truly horrific scenes in this book that made me cringe. Of course, we know that events are going to end terribly, but we continue to read because we want to see just how that happens. Atwood doesn’t hold back in her critiques of society, science, and humanity’s abuse of natural order.
Another aspect of this novel that I loved is the genius world-building of Atwood. She manages to create this world in such a subtle way through giving just a little information at a time. Although he’s difficult to like at first, I found myself sympathizing and pulling for Jimmy as I viewed this story through his eyes. As the son of scientists, Jimmy’s life is one of privilege living inside a compound that houses the scientists and their families. Outside these communities lie the “Pleblands” where the average members of society live. By having the novel told entirely through Jimmy, we only see pieces of this world which adds to its disturbing nature.
This also holds true for how the other two main characters of the novel are portrayed. While it doesn’t take long for us to see that something isn’t quite right about Crake, that image is blurred through Jimmy’s devotion to him as a friend. Oryx serves as the love interest for Jimmy, but her story is a small part of the overall book. She is the most ambiguous, and we never get a clear understanding of her as her story is narrated by her as remembered by Jimmy/Snowman. So there’s a lot of unreliable information presented on Oryx’s background. One of the themes of this story is the manipulative power of storytelling over someone, such as Oryx narrating bits of her past to Jimmy as well as how Snowman has to be deceptive in order to get the Children of Crake to accept him as a prophet.
While Oryx and Crake is the first in a trilogy, it reads well as a standalone novel. I will most likely pick up the other two novels in the series at some point, but I am definitely satisfied if my journey with Snowman ends here. The writing is strong, the characters well-crafted, and the book serves well as a cautionary tale, the way good dystopian novels should.
“He doesn’t know which is worse, a past he can’t regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly. Then there’s the future. Sheer vertigo.”
The Blind Assassin
This novel was such a change of pace from the other one. For one thing, it’s a beast to digest. It’s so hard to summarize such a long and complex book, particularly when it’s actually three stories rolled into one. The first story is about Iris, an elderly woman who looks back on her life, including an abusive marriage to a wealthy businessman and her relationship with her sister who died as a young woman. The second is the recreation of Iris’s past. The third story is a work of noir fiction written by Iris’s sister, posthumously published about two lovers who are collaborating on a work of science fiction. Do you see what I mean about complicated? It takes a while to work through all the labyrinths of this book.
While summarizing this book was hard, I think it’s even more of a task for me to explain why I loved it. I found myself mesmerized by Atwood’s ability at telling such a complex story with relative ease. Obviously, I loved the story-within a story-within a story framework. Another strength of Atwood is at how she fosters empathy for the powerless. In this case, she recreates a world where the suppression of women is commonplace. It works perfectly with the science fiction elements of one of the other stories as this period of history truly feels like an alien world. Atwood does an amazing job of capturing the subtle ways women rebelled back in the 1930’s.
As with Oryx and Crake, Atwood gives us a narrow view of this world thanks to a protagonist who lived a life of privilege. The Chases are the wealthy family in town, and Iris and her sister are raised in isolation, as “befits their station.” When the Depression hits, the family loses everything, and the town becomes engulfed with communist agitators, including a man named Alex Thomas, whom the girls meet. Iris’s father marries her off to a business rival, Richard Griffen, in order to save the family from desolation. Both Iris’s husband and sister-in-law are emotionally abusive and controlling. There are several scenes in this book that will enrage you at how Iris and her sister are treated.
There is a major twist at the end of this book to which I’m proud to say I figured out. My favorite sections of the novel were the chapters from the fictional noir novel, which provides clues to what actually happened. I really liked the character of Iris’s sister Laura who marched to the beat of her own drummer. As with Iris, I found myself so angry by how events unfolded for her.
While The Blind Assassin is another work of sheer genius, getting through it was hard for me. It’s a much longer book than Oryx and Crake, and the pace is significantly slower. My advice for Atwood newcomers is to hold off on this one until you’ve read at least a couple of her other works first. Margaret Atwood continues to amaze, and I plan on tackling her most popular novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, very soon.
“If you knew what was going to happen, if you knew everything that was going to happen next—if you knew in advance the consequences of your own actions—you’d be doomed. You’d be ruined as God. You’d be a stone. You’d never eat or drink or laugh or get out of bed in the morning. You’d never love anyone, ever again. You’d never dare to.”
Have you read any of these books? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.