At the fourth time of asking, Atwood's 'narrative energy' snares Booker Prize

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The Independent Culture

"This is a betting country," Margaret Atwood commented after her Booker Prize victory last night. Indeed, British punters had backed The Blind Assassin so heavily that one leading firm closed its book on the contest.

"This is a betting country," Margaret Atwood commented after her Booker Prize victory last night. Indeed, British punters had backed The Blind Assassin so heavily that one leading firm closed its book on the contest.

Yet, in reality, Atwood's triumph after three previous outings on the Booker shortlist was no foregone conclusion.

The judges, headed by the former editor of The Times Simon Jenkins, had made their idea of "narrative energy" their very public touchstone of excellence this year. The Blind Assassin, in which the elderly Iris Chase recalls the fast, bright and dangerous life of her sister Laura in pre-war Canada, has that virtue in abundance. But it also boasts an intricate narrative and makes playful excursions into the genres of pulp romance, hard-boiled crime thriller and science fiction. This is a complex and sly novel by a virtuoso stylist who thinks as hard about the form of her fiction as about its content.

Reviewing the book in The Independent, the writer Lisa Appignanesi called it "her most daring novel to date". She argued that Atwood "orchestrates her contrapuntal strands without ever missing a beat, to give us a soaring narrative of a century of passionate betrayals". The novel imagines modern Canada as a kind of remote planet, a country that "heaves with the tides of other people's histories, all the while creating its own".

Margaret Atwood has always known how to push back the frontiers of fiction. Born in 1939, the daughter of an entomologist, she spent childhood summers in the wild bush of Quebec. Add that sense of wilderness adventure to the emerging politics of feminism, and you begin to grasp what lies behind the edgy, taut mood of early novels such as Surfacing and The Edible Woman - perhaps the first deep examination of anorexia in literature.

By this time, in the early 1970s, Atwood had abandoned her conventional academic career, won prizes for herpoetry, and moved to the Ontario farm where she lived with the novelist Graeme Gibson.

Novels such as Life Before Man and Lady Oracle established her as a central figure on the international scene. Then, in her feminist dystopia the Handmaid's Tale (1985), she created perhaps the most impressive vision of a dictatorial future since George Orwell's 1984. This time, however, the danger to liberty came not from state Communism but from the Christian fundamentalism that has given so much support to George W Bush.

In books such as Cat's Eye (1988), Atwood proved that her flair for razor-edged irony and scepticism could apply to all ideologies - including feminism. Her expertise in using the devices of popular fiction has always kept her work away from the sort of airless introspection that limits the appeal of some contemporaries. The Blind Assassin produces a pyrotechnic display of genre literature - notably in the 1930s pulp romance that makes the name of Laura Chase - but above these tricks soars a cunning architecture. The harsh truth of industrial conflict always intrudes on the follies and fantasies of the characters. They tell fanciful tales because the pain of their lives forces them to make sense of their bewilderment through storytelling.

"In paradise there would be no stories," the Blind Assassin tells us "because there are no journeys." Margaret Atwood is an incomparably gifted guide through the savage landscapes of modern life.

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